The Pinewood Merry-Go-Round studio magazine

By Sarah Street

Film studios were communities of workers who established close bonds through the collective enterprise of film production. They employed many diverse occupations, including canteen employees, art directors, costume designers, hairdressers, secretaries, publicists, electricians, and carpenters. Establishing a sense of community was important, especially when working conditions could be pressured and intense, with each production throwing up new challenges, especially when working within tight budgets and time constraints. Surviving documentation on the social lives and activities of film studio employees is rare to find, even though we know that several British studios produced in-house magazines. One such example is the Pinewood Merry-Go-Round magazine, published by Independent Producers from August 1946 to December 1947. This publication provides a rare glimpse into how studio employees bonded through sports and social clubs, music and film groups, organising a Christmas pantomime, art exhibitions, sharing studio gossip and reports on particular issues of concern such as transport to work and long working hours. At a time when paper was still rationed, the magazine was rather lavishly produced, with a glossy colour cover design.

The first issue’s editorial declared the Pinewood Merry-Go-Round’s purpose as ‘an interesting, informative and amusing magazine for all Pinewood people, written and illustrated by them’. It stated further that: ‘Nothing will be included that is not of interest to Studio people themselves. It must be remembered however, that copies are bound to find their way into the hands of “outsiders”, so we must make every effort to do ourselves justice’. The magazine was posted free of charge to every member of the studios once a month, and the Acting Editor Joy Redmond, a film publicity director, called for contributions: ‘We need short stories, cartoons, details of any hobbies you have, technical articles that are of interest to us all; sketches, amusing incidents and bits of gossip that are always happening in the studios and hundreds of other items that will make the magazine representative of you all’. Redmond was succeeded as Editor in October 1946 by journalist Tom Moore who occupied the role for the magazine’s short lifetime. The magazine provided a ‘pass’ into the studio like no other, as captured by this cartoon printed in the first issue.

By November 1946 the magazine had established a clear role for itself, its success leading to a broadening of its scope, as noted in the editorial: ‘There can be few industries which call for greater team-work than ours. The more a film worker knows about the broad principles of the other man’s job and what he is trying to get at, the greater will be his own contribution to the general efficiency of his studio and ultimately, of course, to his own well-being’. Both unions and managers were represented, the former writing columns and reports on key issues such as poor transport links to and from the studio and working hours, while J. Arthur Rank’s involvement as President of the Music, Art and Drama Group reflected his enthusiasm for such activities and the magazine’s role in helping to spread knowledge about what everyone did in the studios. The transport issue rumbled on over several issues and was linked to the ‘very poor’ response to an appeal in October 1946 for those interested in forming a Social and Sports Club. The transport problem was blamed since employees were worried about getting home after Club events. Rank promised to secure better bus transport and appointed a Transport Minister ‘but the fact remains that the transport position is unsatisfactory’, and some employees were in favour of Rank building houses near Pinewood. One carpenter wrote a letter to the magazine on the subject. The journey to work took him two and a quarter to two and a half hours and the same time to get home: ‘Being on night shift I have to leave home at 5.30pm at the latest and do not get back until after 10am. At the most, I get in about 5 hours sleep. These travelling times are in normal weather conditions. With the present winter snow, I realise that I just could not make it, so stop away. I have hunted high and low for other accommodation nearer Pinewood, and during the past year even slept in a tent in the orchard by the gate. Is it any wonder that I arrive at work tired, sometimes (very often, in fact) late and lost time through being indisposed. Could not the studio provide somewhere for long-distance workers to sleep? It would repay them many times over in time saved. I am a keen sportsman and would wholeheartedly support the Sports Club, but cannot under the present conditions. I would like to add that I like my job and find D. & P. studios the best of them all – having tried the lot’. However others, particularly workers in the Art Department, opposed living very close to the studios. They were not impressed with the Hollywood model or living with the same people they worked with day in day out. A humorous poem captures something of the strong views and emotions involved in the housing issue.

Regular features included the Pinewood log and gossip section. One item reported: ‘The Fitting Room cat recently produced four kittens who considered the lathes, drills and milling machines ideal playthings. General relief is now felt by all in the Shop – the kittens have been distributed among less dangerous departments, with their tails intact!’ Another shared a welcome by-product of a recent production: ‘Anybody feeling that the English summer has let them down, can borrow tropical clothes and sit under the Bamboo trees that have been made for Black Narcissus. Rumour has it that the men working on these models have been nicknamed “The Bamboo-zle-ers!”’ Some employees were highlighted in special reports such as on Ben Goff, General Foreman of Messrs. Boots, engaged in construction work in the studios. Goff had been employed as a brick-layer foreman when Pinewood was being built in 1934. He was back at Pinewood in October 1946 supervising construction work with four colleagues who worked with him when the first bricks were laid in the studios. He recalled that the first brick was laid by Mrs Spencer Reis, wife of Charles Boot whose engineering and building company designed and constructed the studios following Boot’s purchase in May 1935 of extensive parkland and Heatherden Hall, a country mansion, located at Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire. An early image shows the studios, Heatherden Hall and gardens shortly after operations had commenced.

In November 1946 veteran film producer Cecil Hepworth visited Pinewood and was shown around by an old friend. The report detailed how they discussed the export of British films, a topic the magazine reflected on by publishing choice quotations from American publications about the British films spearheading Rank’s post-war export drive. Technicians who had worked in the studios for a long time were applauded, such as Frank Ellis, 1st Camera Assistant on Green for Danger (1946), the first film to re-open the studios, who had worked on the first camera ever to turn at Pinewood. Before the studios were officially opened in 1935 an acoustic test was arranged by the Hon. Richard Norton, and Ellis came over from Elstree to assist. Another ‘old inhabitant’ of Pinewood was Robert ‘Reg’ J. Blackburn, Chief Electrician. Reg worked at Pinewood from the day the studios opened until they were closed during wartime. 

Pinewood’s social calendar included the Paint Shop’s outing to Southend in November 1946, and in July 1947 there was a joint Denham and Pinewood day trip to Margate. The party travelled in coaches and the attractions included lunch at ‘Dreamland’, tea and an all-star variety show in the evening. 

The magazine regularly reported sports and other competitive activities. The darts section of the Sports and Social Club had the biggest following. A competition held in May 1947 involved a stars’ team playing The News of the World’s visiting team. Cecil Parker threw the winning dart that won the competition for the stars. A report noted that the Pinewood ‘Sparks’ football team would be grateful for more support for their matches because when they played Denham’s ‘Sparks’ team on their home ground of the Pinewood lot in December 1946, there were only two supporters present. Denham fans were better represented, and they beat Pinewood by six goals to five. Pinewood’s team colours were white shirts with green cuffs and collars and the three pine trees of D&P’s trademark on the pocket. A British Film Industry Sports and Gala Day was held at Uxbridge RAF Stadium in September 1947. Ealing won overall, and the report noted ‘many exciting races’ took place. The runners-up were Technicolor, with Denham third, and Pinewood, one point behind, came fourth. A further note comments on the event’s convivial, social function: ‘The prevailing spirit of friendly rivalry encouraged competitors and spectators alike to meet and mix with colleagues from other studios’. 

Occasionally the magazine provides glimpses into the operations of other studios. An article on Marc Allégret, a French director who arrived in Pinewood straight from a French studio in January 1947 to direct Blanche Fury, is a case of particular interest to STUDIOTEC. He recalled how in France working hours were restricted owing to an acute shortage of electrical power. This meant increased night work when more power was available because of the drop in industrial and domestic consumption. Allégret compared current conditions in French studios with those prevailing at Pinewood. He observed how when faced with a ‘rain’ shot British electricians didn’t have to worry over the very real possibility of someone getting a severe shock should the water contact aged and worn cables that should have long since been scrapped. He also claimed that Pinewood’s floor units were not forced into inactivity by the acute shortage of equipment affecting studios in France. Another difference was lack of heating in French studios which meant cameramen were forced ‘to add insult to injury by making their shivering subjects suck ice cubes during “takes” in an effort to minimise fog caused by warm breath meeting frost-cold air’. Despite these problems Allégret noted that the French studios were still making good pictures, referencing the success in London of Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). Allégret had worked in the UK previously on trick shots in the ‘flying carpet’ sequence in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). The report closed with an interesting comment on studio methods, and the exchange of ideas between workers and managers: ‘The equipment and material here has impressed him tremendously – but equally so did the men who use it and their methods. Soon after he arrived here Marc attended a meeting of the Studio Works Committee; he came out full of enthusiasm for what to him, was a new and thrilling departure in the business of picture making. In French Studios there exists no such system whereby the employee and employer can meet for the express purpose of exchanging ideas for the improvement of their industry. He has already written to France, urging them to adopt a similar system in studios over there. Perhaps this is the forerunner of the interchange of talent and ideas he so earnestly hopes to see develop between his country and ours’. This comment reflects the great instability in employment for French technicians in 1947-48 when there were mass redundancies. Workers were in discussions with unions, but the quick turnover of employment from studio to studio meant it was difficult to establish dialogue with managers in terms of improving working methods.

In December 1946 George Busby, production manager and assistant producer for The Archers reported on looking for locations in France and Italy. Busby went to Cinecittà when it was being used as a camp for displaced persons. He found the studios in Rome to be very well equipped ‘although the employment of tubular scaffolding for set building has only just been introduced. Hitherto wood has been in plentiful supply’. This was considerably later than in Britain, as reported in a previous blog on tubular scaffolding, and where there was a severe timber shortage in 1947. In Nice Busby considered the studios to be well-equipped, ‘with sets of a quality second to none’, and he witnessed the first colour film in the post-war period being processed in Agfacolor. In Paris, Busby visited Pathé and the old Paramount studios. Another issue featured an article by British matte painter and storyboard artist Ivor Beddoes on Arab films. Such incidents and reports opened-up the magazine’s content to international film news.

The magazine was well-produced, featuring cartoons by studio employees. One cartoon published in the October 1946 issue was titled ‘Pinewood Phantasmagoria!’ 

In the same issue ‘The Art Director’s Dilemma’ depicted a playful comment on perspective.

In December 1947 the last issue of the Pinewood-Merry-Go-Round was published. The reasons given were continuing paper shortages and the amount of time it took to produce each issue. In the context of continuing post-war austerity the editors decided to cease publication because: ‘We cannot argue that [the magazine] is really essential’. This verdict was not without regret since its purpose had helped to ‘create a good spirit all round’ the studios, and ‘we can look forward to its return when the crisis is over’. This didn’t happen, so the existing record cannot be compared with a later publication from Pinewood. For the years 1946-47 the magazine however provided many insights into what it felt like to work in a studio and how workers socialised outside of work hours. As well as documenting a wide range of activities the magazine had drawn attention to novel uses of Pinewood’s spaces such as an Art Exhibition staged in the South Corridor, and training for a forthcoming boxing tournament carried out in a marquee erected in the paddock area. The convivial tone of the publication reflects something of studio employees’ energy, enthusiasm and curiosity about each other’s lives and work in the shared enterprise of British filmmaking at a crucial time in its history.

Women behind the scenes in German film

By Eleanor Halsall

As it did elsewhere, the German film industry exerted a magnetic pull on its public. Many women aspired to a career on the screen, only to be disappointed when intense competition meant that they were unable to secure work, even as extras. Film stars of both genders added glamour to the profession and were attributed royal status in the cheap novellas flaunting titles like Der Filmgott, Die Kinoprinzessin and Die Filmdiva.

‘2000 girls want to work in film – the great desire that life does not fulfil’. Blatt der Hausfrau, June 1934, Issue 19, p. 524.

Magazines ran articles advising how their readers might break into film; consequently their letter pages were inundated with pleas for advice. Other publications nurtured readers’ ambitions by hinting at the industry’s allegedly magical qualities – evident with titles such as Im Zauber des Films (The magic of film, Brie, 1920) or Ins Zauberreich des Films (Into the magic realm of film, 1930). But the latter, written by Georg Viktor Mendel whose experience as director, writer, cameraman and film architect qualified him to offer insights into a variety of film careers, was directed squarely at boys.

[Isabel] let the film strip glide carefully through her hands: it did not roll across the floor like a giant snake, as happened often enough with her lord and master, but it was neatly round into rolls. She quickly measured out the scenes and spliced them together

Tanz ums Licht

Tanz ums Licht (Dance around the light, Boehm, 1925) resorted to the archetypal narrative of the hapless female – in this case a film splicer (Kleberin) – who is rescued from the obscurity of the dark laboratory where she pieces together the film strips. It doesn’t matter that Isabel has an excellent reputation for her skills as a splicer and editor, the director insists she must take up the mantle of film star! It must have been pure coincidence that she quickly replaces his recently abandoned lover, an actress whose face has begun to betray her days past 30…

In one case of life mimicking art – at least as far as work was concerned – Irene von Meyendorff, a trainee editor working at Babelsberg, was discovered by producer Karl Ritter and offered a leading role in Die letzten vier von Santa Cruz/The last four of Santa Cruz, 1935. This would be the first in a long screen career.

A leap into the leading role, Sport im Bild, vol. 1, 1936.

Restrictions on working time, a ban on night shifts, the exclusion of specific locations and industries (especially bar work!) – the patriarchal tendency of employment law in the Weimar era stipulated enhanced protection for minors and women. Arguably this may have made it difficult for women to enter certain professions, such as lighting engineers required to work at height, or camera operators who had to manipulate heavy apparatus. More likely, however, is that these technical professions were simply not considered as suitable Frauenberufe – occupations for women.

Summarising the law in 1929 as it applied to actors and film directors, the author explained that ‘specific persons were not allowed to agree their own contracts, including children under 13, minors aged 13-21 and … married women’ (Dienstag: 1929, p. 37). Although he pointed out that a degree of female autonomy was enshrined in the Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch (the Civil Code) which entitled a woman to enter into film contracts ‘without her husband’s consent’ this right might nevertheless be overridden via the Vormundschaftsgericht (the Guardianship Court) if the husband felt that his wife’s activity might ‘impair the marital interests’ (Dienstag: 1929, p. 45). Clearly in this period a woman could not take her right to employment for granted, at least not if she was married.

With their rigid notions of gendered roles, the National Socialist regime agitated against wives who went out to work, shaming their families as Doppelverdiener (dual income families) and accusing women of stealing men’s jobs; rhetoric that no doubt found favour with unemployed men. By 1944, however, the available German workforce had shrunk to 29 million from 39 million at the start of the war. Inevitably, because so many men had been enlisted, these figures were not evenly reflected across genders. The number of eligible female workers – classed as jobless women without children under 14 – barely shifted from 14.6 million in 1939 to 14.9 million in 1944 (Kramer: 2002, p. 46). The pressures of labour shortages intensified across all industries, including film production; demands that were only partly met with foreign workers recruited from abroad, and huge numbers of Zwangsarbeiter (forced labourers).

Post-war film production would create greater opportunities for women to enter a range of film professions, particularly with the establishment of DEFA in 1946 which saw a significant number of women working as editors, camera operators and film directors. 

A membership report from the Reichsfilmkammer (RFK) at the end of 1940 revealed that all film professions remained dominated by men, often to the complete exclusion of women. Only acting had slightly more women than men: 1,429 against 1,408.

Vom Film in Deutschland, Schweizer Film, Vol. 7, Issue 99, p. 21.

The historian of German film has an advantage in the sheer volume of bureaucratic records that have survived. These are documents that tell us not just who worked on a film, but also provide information about contractual arrangements, rates of pay, workplace accidents or disciplinary concerns. It is these lists that enable the names of female workers on the creative and technical side of film production to be teased out. 

Allocation sheet for Wo ist Herr Belling dir. Erich Engel, 1944, listing Elly Rauch as assistant director, Hildegard Grebner as editor, with Berta Bernhard and Luise Lehmann as make-up artists. BArch R 109-II/32.

These documents describe a correlation with political shifts and economic pressures as their numbers ebbed and flowed in the studios. So far our research has collected more than 430 names of women working in different film professions, some of whom had experience in more than one area. 

Although the list includes some women who began work after 1945, accessibility of digitised documents during the pandemic means that the emphasis so far is on women who were working between 1930 and 1945. What the RFK list does not mention, presumably because the role fell under a different section of the Cultural Chamber, is that the profession of script writer, among whom the best known is Thea von Harbou, included at least another 87 women.

Which film careers were open to women before 1945?

In the 1920s, publications explored careers that women might consider. Berliner Leben regularly focused on the employment and rights of women, extolling the work of female pioneers in areas such as aviation, patent law or medicine. The magazine also explored the potential for women to work within the film industry, running features about successful female set designers or animation artists, among them Edith Seehafer and Lotte Reiniger. One Austrian publication invited women and girls to consider other film professions such as the Kleberin (splicer); the costumier, the film secretary, hairdresser, bookkeeper and distributor (Volksfreund August 1930). 

The animation artist / Filmzeichnerin

‘This modern profession for women has good prospects and favourable earning potential’ declared a 1928 issue of Berliner Leben which introduced readers to the work of Edith Seehafer (p. 5). Having been spotted for her artistic talents, Seehafer achieved rapid  success within a year establishing her own company, Werbefilm GmbH, and working independently making short animation films for advertising. Perhaps because of this focus, Seehafer does not appear on Filmportal in spite of having been credited with more than 100 films. Nevertheless, she represented one of the more significant film careers for women. 

Edith Seehafer at the animation desk, Berliner Leben, Issue 31, 1928.

Unlike Seehafer’s experience, for many women who entered this field, the work of the animation artist tended to take the more passive form of copying somebody else’s work. A short documentary made in 1956 Zauber im Zeichenfilm (Magic – again! – in Animation) introduces the viewer to the work of the animation artist. The film intersperses scenes from an animated advertising cartoon with behind-the-scene shots from the studio. Here we see rows of desks furnished with drawing materials. At each desk a woman sits bent over an image, painstakingly drawing individual repetitions to reproduce the tiniest motion on the final film. ‘These women do not run away’, the narrator tells us. ‘They stay at their desks as if rooted to the spot, drawing for hours, days, weeks and months. Is this a profession?’ he asks. ‘Is it enthusiasm or obstinacy or passion? Or might it be all of these combined?’ It is a task demanding exceptionally precise work; and it is a task dominated by women with their more slender hands. The speaker’s avuncular tones marvel at the care and attention to detail, and the endless repetitions they must make, but his tone also implies that they are compliant and obedient – in other words, good employees.

In Frame by Frame, the late Hannah Frank investigated the work of the animation artist in America, there too a field dominated by women. Frank carried out her own painstaking research, scrutinising hundreds of thousands of images to reveal evidence of the person behind each drawing; to lift their anonymised lives from the page through evidence of smudges, hairs, whorls on fingers which laid bare the human essence of the artist as she worked on an image. They were not the original artists and, as was common, their names did not appear in a film’s credits. ‘These women were separated from the creative process, even as what they produced was intrinsic to the final product… it is the traces of their hands that we see on-screen’ wrote Frank (2019, p. 81).

The editor and the splicer / Cutterin und Kleberin

Two significant roles for women during this period were that of the editor and the splicer; the latter generally a first step towards becoming an editor. Both requiring delicate manual work, precise attention to detail, and characteristically sedentary work with long hours. ‘No one speaks about the editor … the person who unites image and sound’, wrote one magazine. ‘It would be an injustice if the cinemagoer did not learn about the huge amount of work, trouble and stress that goes into the editing of the film’. The article discussed the work of Else Baum, a highly sought-after editor rented out as a unit with the relevant machinery but who didn’t even get to the premieres of the films she edited because by that time ‘she is resting in a rented room, pleased at last to have peace and quiet for a day and wondering if this is even a human existence’ (Der Kuckuck. 1932). 

Elsa Baum, one of the best-known editors in Germany. Der Kuckuck.

The continuity girl / Skriptgirl

While an editor’s job was more easily defined, in Germany that of the person responsible for ensuring continuity between shoots appears to have suffered from a lack of, ahem, continuity. Is this vital work carried out by the production secretary or the studio secretary? Is it done by the Filmbearbeiterin or the production assistant? One article described the role as ‘the woman who knows everything’ (Mein Film, August 1946) while an earlier comment stressed the importance of the work at the same time as it patronised the worker: ‘The scriptgirl is essential to every film shoot. She’s at least as important as the cameraman – perhaps even more so. The cameraman can be replaced, but not the scriptgirl. After all, who could quickly pick up those last minute details? It’s not enough to read her notes, for she holds thousands of other details in her pretty little head’ (Das kleine Frauenblatt, 1938). 

A unique position

To round off this blog I would like to mention Herta Jülich who specialised in micro-photography, one of a kind in Germany at the time and, it was claimed, world-wide? Jülich featured regularly in publications and sometimes appeared in Ufa’s promotional newsreels for her work in the world of micro photography. Having worked as a technical assistant to a hygienist during WW1, Jülich became a radiologist and phlebotomist for doctors before she was invited by Dr. Ulrich K. T. Schulz to join him in his work at Ufa making cultural films about the tiniest creatures that required huge amounts of patience, steady hands and good eyesight. Articles about Jülich tend to treat her as a serious filmmaker.   

References 

Anon, Badener Zeitung, Der deutsche Kulturfilm und seine Themenwelt, 10 February 1945, p. 3.

Anon, Berliner Leben, Die Trickzeichnerin: ein neue Frauenberuf, Vol. 31, 1928, p. 5.

Anon, Berliner Leben, Kulissen: ein weites Feld für Frauenarbeit, Vol. 30, 1927, p. 8.

Anon, Der Kuckuck, Eine Frau wird verliehen, 4 September 1932, p. 15.

Anon, Mein Film, Das Skriptgirl, die Frau die alles weiss, 30 August 1946, p. 8.

Anon, Salzburger Zeitung, Mikro-Farbfilm, 7 July 1943, p. 8.

Anon, Schweizer Film, Vom Film in Deutschland, Vol. 7, Issue 99, p. 21

Anon, Sport im Bild, Unser Sprung in die Hauptrolle, Vol. 1, 1936, p. 10.

Anon, Volksfreund, Der Film als Frauenberuf, 30 August 1930, p. 5.

Melanie Bell, Movie Workers: the women who made British Cinema, 2021.

Walter Julius Blöm, Tanz ums Licht, 1925.

Woldemar Brinkmann, Die Filmprinzessin, 1920.

C. Deinzendorf, Die Filmdiva, 1925.

Paul Dienstag, Der Arbeitsvertrag des Filmschauspielers und Filmregisseurs, Schriften des Instituts für Arbeitsrecht an der Universität Leipzig. Hft. 20. 1929.

Edmund Edel, Der Filmgott, 1921.

Hannah Frank. Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons, 2019. Frame by Frame (oapen.org)[accessed 11 August 2021]

Jeanpaul Goergen, Im Schatten von Reiniger und Riefenstahl: Filmwege von Frauen im deutschen Animations-, Dokumentar- und Kulturfilm bis 1945https://mediarep.org/bitstream/handle/doc/13869/Goergen_2002_Im-Schatten-von-Reiniger-und-Riefenstahl_.pdf?sequence=4 [accessed 15 June 2021]

‘Irma‘, Berliner Leben, Lotte Reinigers Silhouettenfilme, Vol. 30, September 1927, p. 13.

Cornelia Klauß, Ralf Schenk (Eds.) Sie : Regisseurinnen der DEFA und ihre Filme, 2019. 

Nicole Kramer, Haushalt, Betrieb, Ehrenamt: Zu den verschiedenen Dimensionen der Frauenarbeit im Dritten Reich, in: Arbeit im Nationalsozialismus. 2002, pp. 33-51.

Otto Th. Kroptsch, Das kleine Frauenblatt, Neue Frauenberufe: Skriptgirl, Schnittmeisterin, Kleberin, p. 10.

H. Leèfbre, Berliner Leben, Sollen Sie filmen? Lassen Sie es lieber! Vol. 30, March 1927, p. 7. 

Dr. Georg Victor Mendel, Ins Zauberreich des Films, Bongs Jugendbücherei, 1930.

Dr Ellen Riggert, Znaimer Tagblatt, Eine Frau filmt die Kleintierwelt, 7/8 August 1943, p. 5.

Dr Josephine Widmar, Blatt der Hausfrau, 2000 Mädchen wollen zum Film, 1933-34, p. 524.

Colonies de vacances (holiday camps) for the children of French cinema employees

by Sue Harris

The social aspects of the life studio workers came into focus recently at one of our team seminars on the topic of ‘Time and Leisure in the Studios’ led by Morgan Lefeuvre and Richard Farmer. Their presentations on the organised collective activities (sporting events, gala days, festive parties) of specific studios in London and Paris stressed the many local connections between studios and the communities in which their workers lived, and the ways in which studio employment marked the family life of employees in ways that were more than simply economic. This prompted me to remember my own family’s connections with the Vauxhall Motors factory in Luton (which employed some 36,000 locals in the 1950s), and whose looming presence and paternalistic ethos gave structure to my childhood in the 1970s (Saturday ballroom dance classes at the Vauxhall Recreation Club, the thrill of seeing celebrity guests at the annual July Sports Day, goodie bags and Christmas presents on the annual coach ride to the pantomime in Bedford or Golders Green). And while much history has been written about the iconic cars developed on the Luton site, and the importance of the factory to the local economy, there is now little trace (beyond the shared nostalgic memories of my peers) of the social and cultural influence of this employer on the structural fabric of our lives in our childhood.

A key link between the lives of children of industrial workers in France and the professional employment of their parents was through summer holiday camp provision. The colonies de vacances movement was a social movement established in France in the late nineteenth century, anchored in principles of health, hygiene and education. Concern about the general health of urban children, and particularly fear of diseases like tuberculosis, gave rise to a powerful civic belief in the benefits of fresh country air, collective living and purposeful leisure activity. Initially fostered by benevolent church and municipal organisations, and dynamised by increased workplace unionisation, the movement gathered momentum throughout the early twentieth century, transforming in 1937 (under the auspices of progressive Popular Front Health Minister Henri Sellier) from a fragmented and localised movement into a regulated national framework. Some 420,000 children were accommodated in a network of rural sites in the 1930s pre-war years (Lee Downs, 17) and a 1956 review of a contemporary study of the phenomenon of the holiday camp noted that:

France has produced a remarkable achievement in a vast network of colonies de vacances. Here, every year, considerably more than 1,000,000 town children, most of them under 14 years of age, enjoy four weeks of creative holiday experience. The distinctive features of colonies de vacances are permanent premises, equipped with all essential amenities but with no luxuries; sites variously placed at high, medium and low altitudes and by the sea; specially trained staffs of moniteurs and monitrices who also know how to make wet days into happy ones; proper nursing and culinary staff; a culturally creative plan which, with suitable modifications, underlies all colonies.

Dobinson, 1956, 225.

For most working-class children the colonie de vacances was their formative experience of travel and vacation, and children of parents in the cinema industry were no different. Contributions to the mutuelle du cinéma in the 1930s (a voluntary insurance scheme that ensured sickness provision for industry workers), gave access to rural camps located in regions like the Ile de France and Val de Loire; camps that were sometimes only 30-50km from Paris, but were a world away in terms of geographical and social experiences. We have found reports of les enfants du cinéma (as the children of cinema industry professionals, including those of studio technicians and creatives were known), spending summers in repurposed country estates with vast parklands and glamorous names like the Château de la Michaudière (La Ferté Alais), the Château de Villefallier (Jouy-le-Potier), and the Château de la Tuilerie (Dammartin-en-Goële).

A postcard home from the colonie de vacances at Château de Villefailliers, featuring an image of the dormitory (c. 1959).

By the end of the 1950s, les enfants du cinéma were heading further afield, for holidays in winter resorts and coastal towns such as Cap Ferret near Bordeaux. High profile charity events such as the gala nuit du cinema held at the prestigious Parisian Gaumont Palace on 5th May 1951 saw stars of the calibre of Françoise Rosay, Paulette Dubost, Nicole Courcel and Claude Dauphin unite to raise funds for les œuvres sociales (social benefits for workers), including on this occasion the colonie de vacances programme (Paris-presse, L’Intransigeant, 1951; La Cinématographie française 1407, 1951).

Holiday camps were generously subsidised for working parents who subscribed to the post-war entr’aide du cinéma (a collective fund that replaced the pre-war mutuelle insurance, and adverts urging workers to subscribe to the entr’aide du cinema, and promoting its benefits appeared frequently in La Cinématographie française in the early 1950s.

A front page appeal by Jean Petitbarat, General Secretary of the colonie de vacances programme for the cinema industry, for financial support to maintain and develop the programme. The Château de la Thuilerie is featured (1952).

Worker-parents, whose legal entitlement to paid holidays amounted to four weeks per year at a time when children’s holidays were still organised around rural agricultural seasons (long summers to help with the harvest) were incentivized to send their children out of the city for a month at a time. In 1950, a full-board four week stay at the Château de Vaires (Loire Inférieure) cost 370 francs per day, plus rail fares of up to 1424 francs (depending on the age of the child), and appropriate clothing and footwear had to be provided (La cinématographie française, 1950). This, as well as the 4000 francs deposit required to secure a place, would have been beyond the means of many lower paid and unskilled workers such as stagehands or seamstresses at a time when the average unskilled wage was around 12,000 francs per month (La Cinématographie française, 1950). But entr’aide subscribers benefitted from a daily reduction of 120 Francs on the whole stay, amounting to considerable savings of around 3,360 francs over the month.

Although holidays as such were curtailed in wartime, holiday camps established in the 1930s and earlier nevertheless played an important role as evacuation centres, providing respite and security for French children. Children from the industrial Boulogne-Billancourt area of Paris (where the Billancourt studios stood cheek by jowl with the massive Renault car factory) were evacuated en masse following bombings by the RAF and US Army Air Force in Spring 1942 and 1943 respectively. Many Parisian children were billeted with rural families in under-populated areas such as le Creuse, but many enfants du cinéma found themselves rehoused at the Château de la Michaudière in its new guise as a ‘centre de protection’ (La France socialiste, 1943). A Monsieur Claude P is cited on a website dedicated to the history of the town of La Ferté Alais (Essonne), recalling that:

During the war our father worked in the cinema industry and my brother and I spent many months at the Château de la Michaudière where we had school in the morning and outdoor games in the afternoon. The monitors were wonderful, they were top athletes, and life there was so healthy that there was virtually no illness among the two hundred or so of us there.

Philippe Autrive

The accompanying wartime newsreel extract shows scenes of les enfants du cinéma taking part in organised sporting activities in the grounds of the Château de la Michaudière in 1943, and a cheque for 10 million francs, raised by cinema audiences in another fundraising scheme (la semaine du cinéma), being presented by André Debrie of the National Cinema Committee. In July 1943, 150 evacuee children were in residence in La Ferté Alais for five months, while 350 were accommodated at the Collège Jacques Amyot in nearby Melun (L’Œuvre, 1943).

220 cinema children leaving occupied Paris for 5 months at the Château de la Michaudière, L’Œuvre 22 October 1943.

The opening in 1943 of a further centre in Dontilly, near Donnemarie-en-Montois, shows the extent to which the sector was active in securing safety outside the city for its young children, and this was not limited to Paris: the children of Marseille cinema workers and prisoners of war (‘les enfants marseillais de la grande famille du film’) spent a month in 1942 in one of three colonies near Lyon (Le Journal, 1942). Evacuation was not without its dangers however, with news of an attack on a colonie de vacances near Versailles on 11 July 1944, in which numerous children were killed and injured, reported in the press (Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 1944).

In 1946, as France readjusted to life after Occupation, new holiday camps for cinema children were opened, notably one at Campagne-lès-Hesdin, between Arras and the Channel coast, in the buildings of a substantial hospital built under Nazi occupation in 1942. Although it needed considerable refurbishment, the site was lauded for being ideal as a holiday camp, equipped as it was with high ceilings, insulation, lavatories, kitchens, showers and even a cinema for the rainy days. (La Cinématographie française 1164, 1946).

The phenomenon of the holiday camp was of interest to filmmakers as well as employers and their employees, and inevitably found its way onto celluloid. A French-Italian co-production directed by Léonide Moguy (Demain il sera trop tard, 1950) dealt with the issue of sexual attraction in a co-educational holiday camp. More substantially, René Clair, returning to France from Denham Studios in London in 1939, set about the shooting of Air pur (Clean Air), ‘a film set in a holiday camp, featuring 150 children and as many cats and dogs.’ In an interview with Lucie Derain, Clair described his project as follows:

I want to show the life of poor children, of working-class parents who, for ten months of the year live and play in the Paris back streets, live in apartments without enough light and air, and for whom the two months of the summer in the countryside are a complete escape. My film sees the children leave Paris for a holiday camp in the centre of France. I want to explore the general idea of how everyone, children and adults, can be deeply altered by a change in how they live, how a breath of fresh air can make life better.  


La Cinématographie française 1072, 1939.

Advert for Air pur that appeared in La Cinématographie française 1067, 14 April 1939.

The film was first announced in March 1939, and location shooting began in Paris on 17th July 1939 with a cast of some 300 children. Location shooting continued in the Corrèze region, with young actors Jean Mercanton and Elina Labourdette engaged as leads, and exterior shooting moved on as the summer advanced to Draguignan in the south of France. At the end of August, a vast exterior set – ‘of a size rarely seen in French studio backlots’ (Épardaud, 1939) – was under construction at Victorine Studios in Nice, and the film was both so widely anticipated and so advanced that a double page spread in Pour Vous only added to the general excitement (Pour Vous, 1939).  

Feature article on Air pur, complete with drawings and images from the shoot.

Alas, events were to overtake the production: with the military mobilization having depleted the studio workforce by 40% (La Cinématographie française 1087, 1939), the film was definitively abandoned when war broke out on 1st September 1939, an early casualty of the looming catastrophe. Clair spent the war years in exile in the USA and was unceremoniously stripped of his French citizenship by the Vichy regime in 1941. He wouldn’t make another French film until Le Silence est d’or in 1947, a lively costume drama in which he turned a romantic and nostalgic lens to life in the French studios of the silent era. It is fitting that while their parents were busy on his set in the Pathé studios at Joinville and Francoeur in Paris, the children of his crew were perhaps relishing some of the ‘clean air’ and holiday experiences he had hoped to represent only a few years earlier.

References

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1087, ‘Le travail dans les studios’, 2 September 1939, p. 5.

Anon. Le Journal, ‘Quand les gosses du cinema s’en vont à la campagne’, 22 July 1942, p.2.

Anon. L’Œuvre, ‘Les Vacances des enfants du cinéma’, 7 July 1943 (NO PAGE INDICATED).

Anon. La France socialiste, ‘Des centres de protection pour les plus petits’, 9 October 1943, p.2.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1164, ‘Les oeuvres sociales du cinéma: L’inauguration de la colonie de vacances de Campagne-lez-Hesdin’, 13 July 1946, p.18.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1381, 1’Nouveaux salaires d’exploitation depuis le 1er septembre’. 116 September 1950, p.22.

Anon. Paris-presse, L’Intransigeant, ‘La nuit du cinéma, samedi au Gaumont Palace’, 4 May 1951, p.6.

Anon. Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, ‘Une colonie de vacances mitraillée par l’aviation anglo-américaine’, 12 July 1944, p.2.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1360, ‘La colonie de vacances de l’entr’aide du cinéma’, 22 April 1950, p.14.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1407, ‘Nuit du cinéma: 5 mai au Gaumont Palace’,  10 March 1951, p.23.

Lucie Derain, ‘René Clair nous parle d’Air pur’, La Cinématographie française 1072, 19 May 1939, p.36

C.H. Dobinson, P.A. Rey-Herme, La Colonie de Vacances hier et aujoud’hui. In International Review of Education, Vol 2, No 2, 1956, pp. 224-225.

URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3441622 (accessed 10.07.2021).

Laura Lee Downs, Histoire des colonies de vacances : de 1880 à nos jours, Editions Perrin, 2009.

Edmond Épardaud, ‘Dans les studios’, La  Cinématographie française, 1090-1092, 6 October 1939, p.7.

Nino Frank, ‘René Clair et les 200 gosses d’Air pur ont pris la clef des champs’, Pour Vous 559, 2 August 1939, pp. 6-7.

Philippe Autrive, La fertéalais.com: URL: https://www.lafertealais.com/monsieur-jean-quere-animateur-de-colonie-en-1944-au-chateau-de-la-michaudiere-pres-de-la-ferte-alais/ (accessed 4 August 2021).

Silence, ça tourne! The first sound shootings in French studios

By Morgan Lefeuvre

Casting in the Tobis Studios in 1929 – The director communicates with the sound engineer using a telephone. Coll. Cinémathèque française.

‘Cinema speaks, but not for long! It’s too complicated, too scientific! […] Do you realise that if talking pictures were to last, we would all have to change jobs?’ (Pagnol: p. 18). This statement, addressed by a French producer to Marcel Pagnol in 1929 to dissuade him from trying the cinema adventure, illustrates how much the advent of talking pictures is perceived at the time as a real revolution. Beyond the soundproofing of the sets and the installation of new technical equipment, it is the whole functioning of the studios that is affected by the introduction of this new technology. In an extremely rapid and radical way, sound film imposes its law on all studio workers who, in a few months, must deeply modify their working habits, learn a new technique and a new vocabulary, become familiar with new practices, and integrate new professionals into their teams, in a word: ‘change their job’! The aim of this blog post is not to offer an in-depth analysis of this major technological and aesthetic breakthrough in the history of cinema, but rather to provide an insight into the climate of confusion, technical experimentation, but also enthusiasm and joyful fantasy that reigned in the French studios during this short and experimental period of transition from silent to sound era. This post is an invitation to immerse oneself, for the duration of a brief journey, in the bizarre and often funny atmosphere of the first French sound film shoots, which the actors and technicians of the time still remember with amusement and emotion.

From the summer of 1929 to the end of 1930, the French studios are in a state of perpetual renovation. From Nice to Joinville, from Billancourt to Épinay, new workshops and sets are built, the obsolete glass roofs removed, the sets soundproofed and new sound equipment installed. Everywhere the appearance of the sets changes, natural light disappears for good, the brick walls are lined with Celotex and new spaces are created to accommodate the sound engineers and their equipment with weird names (potentiometers, galvanometers, amplifiers, mixing tables, etc.). In most of the large studios (at Paramount in Saint-Maurice, in Billancourt or at Tobis in Épinay-sur-Seine) small rooms are built over the sets to accommodate the sound engineers and their equipment. Equipped with large, double-glazed windows, these mixing rooms allow the engineer to make the necessary adjustments to the sound recording while following the progress of the shooting on the set. In other installations (notably in the Joinville studios), the equipment is installed in heavy mobile cabins that the grips move according to the needs of the shots and changes of set. As a new central figure in the studios, the sound engineer is paradoxically invisible, isolated from the rest of the team, as described by a sound engineer in Pour Vous: ‘I am the forgotten one, the obscure worker whose domain is a small cabin lost in the depths of the studio […]’ (March 1937: p. 8). In addition, in order not to disturb the sound recording, the cameraman and his equipment are equally enclosed in a second, smaller wheeled cabin, which the stagehands are trying to move painfully to carry out dollies or panoramic shots. These new devices, which profoundly modify relations within the team and the atmosphere on the sets, have raised the curiosity of journalists who are multiplying their reports on these new sound stages.

Far from the glamorous images of talking stars celebrated at Hollywood opening nights, the descriptions of early sound filming in the French press often seek to provoke surprise, even disappointment for the reader who discovers the chaos of a film set and the rocky nature of these early sound shootings:

Hey! What, is this what a studio is? […] a three-sided set, cabins that look like tanks, a fishing rod with a microphone as bait, men with sweaty faces, blue-collared, fiddling with controllers and jabbering behind the sets, […] artists who dare not move for fear of damaging their make-up and who wait, stunned by the light, for the magic trick that will make them come alive as if they were precious dolls…yes, that’s what a studio is!

Cinémonde, April 1931: p. 213.

Sound tests in the Gaumont studios – on the right, the camera cabin covered with heavy curtains.  Coll. Cinémathèque française.

The first element highlighted by all observers is the silence imposed on everyone on the set and the new modes of communication within the film crew. Whereas in the silent era, the set was an eminently noisy and animated space (hammering, grips whistling on the scaffolding, extras chattering and instructions shouted by the director into his megaphone), the sound film suddenly imposes total silence on everyone. The red lights, along with a loud beep, appears at the set doors and crews often find it difficult to comply with this new discipline. On the set of his first sound film, Sous les toits de Paris, René Clair is even called to order by the studio’s production manager, who asks him to discipline his crews so that they did not think they were ‘allowed to go in and out of the studio, make noise etc. while the red light is on’ (BNF, fonds René Clair, 4°COL 84 / RC 09). Locked in his booth and isolated from the rest of the crew, the sound engineer communicates his instructions via a telephone connected to a loudspeaker. His definitive advice ‘OK for sound’ or ‘no good for sound’, coming out of nowhere, freezes the whole team, who look askance at this new star of the sets. ‘The booth where he stands is like a fortress, no one questions his orders’, says journalist Jacqueline Lenoir in Cinémonde (May 1934, p. 380). Ordering silence, having the power to interrupt filming or to impose his demands on the actors as well as the director or the cinematographer, the sound engineer was generally little appreciated in the French studios at the beginning of the sound era. As this extract from a report in the Pathé studios in Joinville shows:

The studio bar is filling up with people…the lady in charge points out to me a few people who have been spotlighted by the talkies […] It’s the soundman. All directors fear him. M. Marcel L’Herbier in particular curses him. He exercises a real dictatorship over the studio […]

Cinémonde, Feb. 1930: p. 88.

‘I never abuse this almost dictatorial power. I am content to demand perfect sound, voice and musical emissions’, adds Régy, the sound engineer, in an interview (Pour Vous, March 1937: p. 8). Most of the first sound engineers in the Paris studios come from the United States (more rarely from Germany) and do not speak French, bringing with them a whole Anglo-Saxon technical vocabulary which make them all the more exotic in the eyes of the teams. ‘With sound, an infinitely complex, infinitely fragile equipment entered the studio. Mysterious geniuses called microphones, amplifiers, galvanometers, photoelectric cells, fixed density and variable density suddenly appeared’, says the journalist Jean Vidal (L’Intransigeant, March 1933: p. 9). However, the studio workers are quick to reappropriate these new technical terms, transforming the ‘stageman’ into a ‘giraffe man’ and the ‘mixing room’ into a ‘sound shack’, which makes the first sound stages look like a Tower of Babel where a French-English jargon mixed with slang is spoken, much to the delight of reporting journalists. As Edwige Feuillère writes in her memoirs about her first sound experiences at the Saint-Maurice studios:

It was the international hustle and bustle of airports on the days of the big departure. All the languages were jabbered and in the work, on the sets, reinterpreted by our clever grips who understood quickly and translated immediately into Parisian or Marseilles according to their origins.

Feuillères: p. 74.

Sound engineer in his mixing-room in the Tobis studios (1930). Coll. Cinémathèque française.

Beyond these new soundscapes, what strikes the visitor who enters the Parisian studios in 1930 is the tropical heat that reigns there, whatever the season. Hermetically locked to avoid outside noise, the French sets hastily redesigned for sound films were rarely equipped with an adequate ventilation system and the air was unbreathable. Moreover, the widespread use of incandescent lamps (arc lamps cause a lot of parasitic noise) increases the heat even more and it is not unusual for temperatures to approach 40°C on the catwalks where the stagehands and electricians work. Locked up in their hermetically sealed, cork-lined cabins, the sound engineers have to endure even higher temperatures. A Comoedia journalist who came to interview engineer Antoine Archimbaud in his booth said that the thermometer read 48°C (Nov. 1930: p. 8). As for the sound engineer Roger Handjian, he recalls the shooting of Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Parfum de la dame en noir, during which the temperature rose so high on the set that the automatic fire extinguishers – which are triggered above 68°C  – went off, copiously drenching the actors, technicians, director and the hundred or so extras present on the set! (L’Écho d’Alger, June 1933: p. 4). In the suffocating heat of the sets, the most distinguished directors sometimes lose all sense of dignity and elegance, like René Hervil, whom a journalist from Pour Vous describes as follows on the set of his film Azaïs:

Under a light more dazzling and torrid than it can be in the worst Sahara, three hundred people in gala dresses are drinking and chatting in the lobby of a palace. […] Suddenly, in the middle of this sumptuous crowd, an individual dressed in a while painter’s coat, whose open flaps float over pants pleated at the calves by the sock fixers. […] The man in the pants is René Hervil. […] He has too much to do to wear trousers. Silence! Hervil thunders. Close the doors! […] It’s spinning!

Pour Vous, Jan. 1931: p. 2.

Once the scene is set, the director wipes his forehead, ‘with a towel around his neck and shoulders, like a boxing trainer’. In order to prevent the crews from suffocating completely, the doors of the set are opened wide between takes and the air is stirred with powerful fans placed in front of the doors. In winter, this causes sudden drops in temperature and the actors complain about the cold!

Shooting of La Fleur de l’Oranger, Pathé studios in Joinville, May 1932 – Coll. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé.

But it is above all the vagaries of the microphone and the difficult control of sounds that cause visitors to be amused. Once the sets have been soundproofed and hermetically sealed, it is still necessary to hunt for parasitic noise and to try – with an often rudimentary level of equipment – to capture the voices of the actors and the various sounds necessary for the scene as well as possible. The first parasitic noise, already mentioned above, is that of the cameras themselves, which are initially enclosed in a soundproof box with the operator. This is how Marcel L’Herbier described them while shooting his first talking film, L’Enfant de l’amour:

It was quite ludicrous this ‘first one hundred percent speaking’. In the Joinville studio, which had been hastily set up for sound, I only had the noisy cameras of the late silent era. They had to be muffled so that the microphones could not hear them. But how? Our ingenious engineers thought they had found perfection by constructing a sort of bathing cabin like the ones that were rolled out to the waves for the first baths in Dieppe or Trouville. Locked inside with their ‘zinc’ [camera], my cameramen Arménise and Lucas, who were not allowed to wear a swimming costume, sweated profusely in these mobile carts. […]

L’Herbier: p. 192.

In other cases, while waiting for the blimp to appear, the operators simply cover their cameras with a heavy woolen blanket, which, as one can imagine, does not help to bear the tropical temperature of the sets! Then they must flush out all the parasitic noises that the microphones, which are still very imperfectly sensitive, amplify disproportionately. It’s the journalist who has come to see the shooting and is playing with his keys in his pocket, the newspaper leafed through by an actress whose paper makes a thunderous noise, or the young actor’s polished shoes that crunch and cover his voice. Sometimes the solution is simple – get the journalist out of the room, dampen the newspaper sheets or ask the young actor to act barefoot – but often tricks have to be found to remedy the situation. On the set of Il est charmant, actor Dranem’s new shoes caused a deafening squeal in the microphones with every step he took, so the soles had to be perforated in several places and oil injected in order to soften the leather and allow the shooting to continue. In summer, flies or bees infiltrating the studios are the bête noire of sound engineers, their incessant buzzing, amplified by over-sensitive microphones, interfering with the sound recording and causing a noise similar to that of an aircraft engine. In some studios built in a wooded environment, close to rivers or stables (such as those in Joinville, Billancourt, Saint-Maurice or Épinay-sur-Seine), the insects are so numerous that young assistants are responsible for chasing away the intruders by spraying Fly-Tox all day, which contributes to making the air on the sets particularly unbreathable! (Rochefort: p. 207)

During the very first sound shootings, all the sounds (voices, sound effects, music) were recorded live, which brought a host of new professionals to the sets and made the mixing particularly delicate, as sound engineer Régy explains: ‘During a fight in a bar […] Armand Bernard, Marguerite Moreno and Suzet Maïs had to restart their performance seven times in the middle of the fight, in the midst of growing irritation, because the perfect marriage of the various noises, broken furniture, smashed bottles, kicks and punches, exclamations and screams could not be achieved during the first rehearsal’ (Pour Vous, March 1937: p. 8). Although the presence of full orchestras and effects men of all kinds on the sets only lasted a few months (quickly giving way to prerecorded sounds and post-synchronisation), the unusual presence of effects men nevertheless left its mark on people’s minds and many articles were devoted to them in the press of the time. The image below ironically illustrates the hyperspecialisation of some of them, suggesting that with sound films it was quite easy to get paid to do nothing on the set!

La Cinématographie française, 27 September 1930, p. 42.

– What is this guy doing here?

– He is the one who in the orgy scenes imitates the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked!

Chaotic and often with limited results, the first sound shootings remain an inexhaustible source of surprises and amused memories for the technicians who lived through this crazy adventure. As Marcel L’Herbier, who despaired of being able to control the shooting of his film, wrote: ‘Finally, the moments of laughter at the surprises of the microphone and the dry bath cabin gave us back our morale’ (L’Herbier: p. 193).

References

Anon. ‘Les confidences du micro’, Comoedia, 15 November 1930, p. 8.

André Arnyvelde, ‘Dans le hall d’un palace en tournant Azaïs’, Pour Vous, n°113, 15 January 1931, p. 2.

BNF archives (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), René Clair collection, letter from Franck Clifford to René Clair, 22 January 1930, 4°COL 84 / RC 09.

Max Falk, ‘Studio ou l’on parle, studio ou l’on travaille’, Cinémonde, n°68, 6 February 1930, p. 88.

Edwige Feuillère, Les feux de la mémoire, Paris, Albin Michel, coll. Le Livre de poche, 1977.

F. Herlin, ‘Ciné-Échos’, L’Écho d’Alger, 1er June 1933, p. 4.

Jacqueline Lenoir, ‘Parlons un peu des gens de cinéma’, Cinémonde, n°290, 10 May 1934, p. 380.

Marcel L’Herbier, La Tête qui tourne, Paris, ed. Belfond, 1979.

Marcel Pagnol, Cinématurgie de Paris, Paris, ed. de Fallois, coll. Fortunio, 1991.

Régy, ‘À l’écoute… souvenirs d’un ingénieur du son’, Pour Vous, n°436, 25 March 1937, p. 8.

Max Renneville, ‘Cinémonde vous raconte… René Hervil au travail’, Cinémonde, n°128, 2 April 1931, p. 213.

Charles de Rochefort, Le Film de mes souvenirs, Paris, Société parisienne d’édition, 1943, p. 207.

Jean Vidal, ‘La parole est à l’homme du son’, L’Intransigeant, 4 March 1933, p. 9.

Supporting feature: tubular scaffolding

By Richard Farmer

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929.

Film studios are places of innovation. New technologies and creative processes are developed, adopted, adapted and eventually superseded. Some of these innovations, such as the arrival of synchronised sound or widescreen, are designed to be obvious to the viewer, to provide spectacle and inspire wonder and pleasure. But a host of other innovations go unseen, especially those that change how a film is made, as opposed to the form it takes when it is placed before the consumer. These background innovations can change day-to-day labour practices and are often introduced to make the working life of a studio more efficient and cost effective, even as they might simultaneously contribute to aesthetic change.

‘Bettaskaf’: Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd, (Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929). ‘Double Grip’: London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd (Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1948).

One such innovation, introduced to British studios in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was tubular metal scaffolding.  As an October 1929 advertisement for the Steel Scaffolding Co.’s ‘Bettaskaf’ system claimed, metal scaffolding could be used for ‘all constructional work’ in the studio:  

In the building of sets, platforms for lights and cameras, erection of scenery, temporary buildings, etc., there is nothing that ‘Bettaskaf’ will not do …  Dismantled even quicker than it is erected it can be stored away neatly until it is required again, no waste, no loss, adaptable to every need (Bettaskaf, 1929: 54). 

But wait, cried a salesman for the rival London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd., there’s more: 

On location work its uses are many and varied, mobile sun rostrums and spot rails, temporary dressing rooms and canteen, generator shelters, baffles for suppressing generator noises, temporary studios for shooting interiors during inclement weather (Kinematograph Weekly, 26 November 1936: 49).

Metal scaffolding was designed to replace timber and was said by manufacturers to offer such notable advantages over wood that it would ‘practically eliminate’ it as a building material in the studio (Bettaskaf, 1929: 54). The first of these advantages was cost, both in terms of labour – one report claimed that sets could be put up in one eighth of the time of a timber set – and outlay on materials – a greater upfront cost, admittedly, but its durability and reusability effecting as much as a 75% saving over time (Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1935: 63; Carter, 1935: 259). Metal scaffolding was fireproof, a significant point of appeal for an industry with a tendency to dangerous and expensive conflagrations, and was also strong, its greater rigidity allowing camera platforms and lighting rails to be placed ‘in positions impossible with timber, i.e. over the sides of ships, on railway engines and automobiles’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 26 November 1936: 49). Furthermore, and suggesting how different kinds of innovation intersect, proponents claimed that it was quieter to erect and use, and so more suited to use in the early sound studio: ‘if Britain is to win the fight for talking film supremacy, the microphone will eventually demand the use of the spanner as against the noise occasioned by the busy carpenter and joiner’ (Bioscope, 13 November 1929: xv). Those wielding these spanners would, within a few years, find themselves playfully dubbed ‘tuberculars’ by their colleagues (Whitley, 1935: 27).

International Photographer, August 1933.

Tubular metal scaffolding had become increasingly common in Britain during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, possibly because of the relative scarcity of wood in the UK as compared to other countries such as the USA, where timber scaffolding continued to be used until at least the late 1920s (New York Times, 24 August 1930: W14). The eventual standardisation of pole diameters was followed by the development of a range of patented connectors and accessories that allowed horizontal, vertical and diagonal tubes to be joined in pretty much infinite combinations.  It was this flexibility that appealed to filmmakers; the modular nature of tubular metal scaffolding could be used to quickly and easily construct a lighting rig or camera crane to match the specific needs of an individual production, sequence or shot. Moreover, it could be easily disassembled when not in use, freeing up space on often cramped studio floors: as Kinematograph Weekly observed, ‘a camera crane, in the ordinary way, takes some parking when out of action’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 January 1934: 113).

Although stories vary as to who had the initial idea for using tubular scaffolding in British film production – some suggest that it was a studio manager, some a chief engineer, others a studio accountant – many reports focus on the fact that, as Meccano Magazine reported to its readers with no small degree of pride, inspiration was taken from a child’s Meccano set (Kinematograph Year Book, 1936: 335, 338; Coughter 1933: 415; New York Times, 7 Jan 1934: X4). What seems clearer is that in 1931 Gaumont-British became an early, and perhaps the first, adopter of this new apparatus in the context of film production in the UK, and by 1935 bragged that its Shepherd’s Bush studio was home to 100,000 ft. of tubular scaffold poles, ‘10,000 couplers, 5,000 base plates, 200 wheels (various)’ (Kinematograph Year Book, 1936: 310).  

Gaumont-British was eager to put this giant building kit to work, and almost as keen to be seen doing so. Numerous reports in both the trade and popular press from the mid-1930s refer to the uses to which studio employees were putting the company’s ‘grown-up Meccano’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 January 1934: 113). Oliver Baldwin, son of Stanley, excitedly informed readers of Picturegoer that when he visited the set for First a Girl (1935), he found ‘cameras, microphones, rostrums of all shapes and sizes, erected [from modular metal scaffolding] with a firmness that was unknown in the old days’ (Baldwin 1935: 8). A crane weighing an estimated 15 tons was constructed for The Iron Duke (1934), allowing cinematographer Curt Courant and his camera to gracefully track Wellington from a high-angle as he moved through a crowded ballroom (Mannock 1934: 25), whilst a dramatic mobile shot in Britannia of Billingsgate (1933) was made possible by a tubular-scaffolding slipping rostrum measuring 30 ft. long by 75 ft. high (Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1935: 63).  For Channel Crossing (1933), tubular scaffolding was used to build both the supporting framework of the s.s. Canterbury set and a crane large enough to accommodate camera, director and cinematographer.   

The Sphere, 23 March 1946.

The art director on Channel Crossing was Alfred Junge, one a number of German film technicians working in British studios in the 1930s who were able and willing to explore the aesthetic possibilities afforded by the new scaffolding. STUDIOTEC’s Tim Bergfelder has noted that Junge ‘revolutionised scaffolding and crane technology [in Britain], which led to an increased mobility for both sets and cameras’ (Bergfelder 2016: 25). Junge was eager – indeed, was employed – to bring a German polish to British films by replicating something of the ‘unchained camera’ that had influenced him during his formative years in Germany during the 1920s, a technique which had shaped production design and cinematography in pretty much equal measure but which, Katharina Loew suggests, was in Germany often facilitated by wooden trusses and steel cables (Loew 2021: 246-7). The flexibility and economy of tubular scaffolding made it easier for Junge to realise his creative ambitions, whilst the cost-effective nature of the system meant that studio bean-counters were perhaps more willing to let him try. As Edward Carrick noted of tubular scaffolding, its mobility was ‘a great asset’ when designing more elaborate sets that could accommodate more mobile cameras:

whole sections of walls, including windows, mantlepieces and stairways, are attached to tubular scaffolding towers which are mounted on rubber-tyred wheels. There is an inch of so clearance between the set and floor and the whole lot can be moved in and out at will (Carrick 1949: 82).

For all that German art designers and cinematographers had the skills and experience to more fully exploit the opportunities afforded by tubular scaffolding, it was heralded in many quarters as a British innovation, and one that improved the look and so the prestige of British films. The Era’s Kenneth Green, for example, observed that ‘it is satisfactory to record the ingenuities of a British device of which Hollywood knows nothing’ (Green 1933: 18). On the other side of the Atlantic, the August 1933 edition of International Photographer noted that it was ‘a surprise’ that American studios had not yet adopted tubular scaffolding (Tannura 1933: 17), whilst the New York Times, seemingly unwilling to take the British studios at their word, cautiously observed that the system was ‘regarded by American technicians as a useful development’ (New York Times, 7 Jan 1934: X4).  Further research might be needed before we can state with certainty whether British studios really did lead the way in their use of tubular scaffolding, but what is evident is that they were clearly happy to take the credit.

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1948.

By the end of the 1930s, the use of tubular scaffolding was widespread in British studios, and by the late 1940s fan magazines felt comfortable dropping references to it into their articles without having to explain what it was or the influence it had had on filmmaking. What in the mid-1930s had been declared nothing less than ‘a revolution’ (Baldwin 1935: 8) had been normalised, although the changes it brought about in the industry lived on.  Indeed, it is a testament to the durability and usefulness of these metal poles and connectors that they sometimes outlived the studios in which they had been used, auctioned off when production ceased so that they could find renewed purpose elsewhere.   

References

Oliver Baldwin, ‘Behind the scenes at Shepherd’s Bush’, Picturegoer, 31 August 1935: 8-9.

Tim Bergfelder, ‘The production designer and the Gesamtkunstwerk: German film technicians in the British film industry of the 1930s’, in Andrew Higson (ed.), Dissolving views: key writings on British cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 2016): 20-37.

Bettaskaf advertisement, Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929: 54.

Edward Carrick, Designing for films (London: Studio Publications, 1949).

A. L. Carter, ‘Equipment and technique in 1935’, in Kinematograph Year Book 1936 (London: Kinematograph Publications Ltd, 1935): 219-70.

Ellis Coughter, ‘The largest film studio in Europe: Gaumont-British enterprise’, Meccano Magazine, June 1933: 414-5, 470.

Kenneth Green, ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s new talkie’, The Era, 27 September 1933: 18.

Kinematograph Year Book 1936 (London: Kinematograph Publications Ltd, 1935).

Katharina Loew, Special Effects and German Silent Film: Techno-Romantic Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021).

P. L. Mannock, ‘George Arliss begins as Wellington’, Kinematograph Weekly, 6 September 1934: 25.

Philip Tannura, ‘European supremacy?’, International Photographer, August 1933: 17.

R. J. Whitley, ‘Studio “slanguage”’, Daily Mirror, 13 September 1935: 27.

The Austro-German Connection: Italy’s Transnational Films and the UK

By Carla Mereu Keating

As we continue to compile our filmographies to map regional, national, international and transnational nodes and networks of film production, several lesser-known cases of collaboration among the four countries of the project have emerged. This blog post shares ongoing research on the history of Italian film studios in the years following the domestic conversion to sound. In particular, it looks at attempts to establish a new commercial route for Italian films in the UK in the 1930s and at the role that Berlin, Vienna and London-based filmmakers played in this transnational film exchange.  

With the diffusion of synchronised sound, audiences’ language diversity posed a threat to the international circulation of films. In the early years of the transition, creative solutions were designed at the stages of production, post-production and distribution to overcome the language barrier. Content localization practices such as dubbing and subtitling, for example, were introduced with different degrees of success in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. In the UK, for example, as discussed by Carol O’Sullivan (2019: 271), the introduction of subtitles caught up later in comparison with other non-English speaking European markets, partly because of the plentiful supply of English-language films coming from Hollywood. As I have considered elsewhere, in the 1930s a number of European films also reached the UK in a dubbed version, eliciting mixed critical reviews. 

Song of the Sun was among the first (Italian) films shown on British screens dubbed. This romantic musical comedy was dubbed into English from the Italo-German dual language version La canzone del sole/Das Lied der Sonne (Neufeld, 1933), produced by the Berlin-based Italian company Itala Film. Alongside opera singer Giacomo Lauri Volpi appearing as himself, the leading actors in both versions, German Liliane Dietz and Italian Vittorio De Sica, were directed by Austrian director Max Neufeld in Berlin, at the Johannisthal studios, and in Italy, on location. In the German Das Lied der Sonne, the only version that I was able to access, De Sica constantly switches from a broken, heavily-accented German to his native Italian, adding even more flavour to the long, postcard sequences filmed in Verona, Venice, Rome, Naples and Capri.  

Dietz and De Sica in La canzone del soleCinema Illustrazione, 18 October 1933.

The opera theme and the picturesque Italian-ness on screen may have been a selling point for the English and German-speaking markets, but in Italy La canzone del sole was received in hardly complimentary terms by some film critics of the time: the film was ‘a lyrical-touristic pot-pourri’ commented Margadonna (Illustrazione Italiana 12 November 1933, cited in Chiti and Lancia 2005: 60); critic Enrico Roma also labelled it ‘a funfair of Italian voices and songs to suit the Germans, who lack their own [repertoire]’, and was reproachful of Dietz’s ‘mangled Italian pronunciation’ (Cinema Illustrazione, 15 November 1933: 12). 

Other types of localization of film content were attempted at the level of production and required more extensive financial investments than dubbing or subtitling. Paramount’s transatlantic move to the Joinville studios outside of Paris (Ďurovičová 1992) and Ufa’s longer-lasting multilingual project at Babelsberg in Berlin (Wahl 2016) are the most illustrative examples of the wide-scale studio-based efforts required in the early years of the transition to produce multiple-language versions (MLVs). At the beginning of the 1930s, neither the UK nor Italy committed to a large production of MLVs. The Italian film industry, in particular, fell behind in the race to equip for sound, Italy being the last country in the STUDIOTEC group to build soundstages and to have the spatial capacity to accommodate the requirements of multilingual production. 

If we look at the filmographic data provisionally collected for the 1930s, among the MLVs released in Italy between 1930 and 1934 only 12 were produced in Italian studios, mostly at Cines, the first facility to be equipped for sound. Strictly speaking, Italy’s MLVs were examples of dual language rather than multiple versioning, in the sense that production rarely involved more than two languages at a time (usually in Italian and French, or in Italian and German). During this four-year period, only one example, La canzone dell’amore (Righelli 1930), Italy’s first sound feature to be released, was also filmed in both French (La dernière berceuse) and German (Liebeslied) at Cines with a partially different cast and direction. In later years, the number of Italian studio facilities able to host MLVs increased, but the dual-language model remained the preferred one, with French or German being the second working language. When collecting and comparing the data at our disposal, however, we observed some curious examples of production in English, and from the late 1930s onwards, in Spanish.

The Divine Spark (Casta Diva, Gallone 1935), a romantic drama inspired by the life of Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, is probably the most renowned example of an English-language film produced in Italy in the mid-1930s. Exploiting the opera theme in time for Bellini’s centenary commemorations, the English and the Italian-language versions, both directed by director Carmine Gallone, were shot at Cines between the end of 1934 and spring 1935 (Bono 2004: 87). Produced by the film company Alleanza Cinematografica Italiana (ACI), both versions cast Hungarian Operetta star Marta Eggerth (as Maddalena Fumaroli) who sang and acted with her own voice accompanied in the Italian version by the unknown Sandro Palmieri and in the English version by the American Philipps Holmes (as Bellini). 

Eggerth and Palmieri in Casta Diva, Cinema Illustrazione, 6 March 1935.

Not only does Casta Diva hold the distinction of being one of the few Italian films produced during these years to have an English-language counterpart, but it is also of particular interest because of the ‘Austro-German connection’. As argued by Bono (2004: 53), the idea for Casta Diva ‘filiated’ from the Austro-German opera film Leise flehen meine Lieder (Forst 1933) based on the life of Franz Schubert and produced by Cine-Allianz (later in Italy as ACI) at the Sievering film studios in Vienna. Leise flehen meine Lieder was also adapted into English in Vienna as Unfinished Symphony (Asquith 1934). Polyglot Eggerth starred again in both versions. Austrian producer Arnold Pressburger and screenwriter Walter Reisch, Czech cinematographer Franz Planer, art director Werner Schlichting and music director Willy Schmidt-Gentner (both German but working in Vienna) were involved in this dual version project. The presence of émigré filmmakers in Vienna during these years is not surprising, considering that between 1933 and 1938, when Austria was annexed, the capital had become a temporary refuge for many Jewish filmmakers forced out of Germany (Loacker 2019). The Cine-Allianz team, including production partner Gregor Rabinovitch, a Russian émigré, later worked on the production of The Divine Spark in Italy in collaboration with British Gaumont. Awarded the Mussolini Cup for best Italian film at the Venice Film Festival in 1935, the Italian-language Casta Diva was instead handled by an Italian technical crew (including Massimo Terzano, Fernando Tropea, and Enrico Verdozzi).

Another lesser-known film made in Italy in English in the second half of the 1930s points at further developments in the transnational dynamics observed above. This production was Thirteen Men and a Gun (Zampi 1938), the English-language version of Tredici uomini e un cannone (Forzano 1936), a Great-War Russian espionage thriller. Departing from the romantic Operettenfilm formula (more popular in Germany than in Italy) and featuring an all-male cast, this project aimed to attract a different segment of the market. The English version went into production in December 1937, a year after the Italian version was released, but both films were shot in Tuscany at the Pisorno studios. According to the Motion Picture Herald, ‘more than 40 British actors, cameramen and technicians’ travelled to Italy to collaborate on this production (5 February 1938: 25). A German-language version Dreizehn Mann und eine Kanone (Meyer 1938), was also filmed in 1938, but in Munich, at the Geiselgasteig studios, according to German sources.

Painting the wooden cannon prop (right), Cinema Illustrazione, 26 August 1936: 8.

These late 1930s MLVs interest us because they signal the development of a new film network between Italy and the UK thanks to the initiative of Italian-born editor, director and producer Mario Zampi working in London with Warner and Paramount and co-founder of the film company Two Cities Film. As some trade press reports indicate, Thirteen Men and a Gun was the first of a ‘consummated deal’ between Zampi and film director, playwright and Pisorno studios’ owner Giovacchino Forzano which envisioned a total of seven English-language features to be produced in Italy (The Film Daily, 31 December 1937: 12). It is still unclear how the partnership between Zampi and Forzano formed in the very first place, but the fact that there was a German-language version of Tredici uomini in production at the same time, and that Zampi was acquainted with the British director Anthony Asquith, who had worked with Cine-Allianz in Vienna a few years before, and with whom Zampi would go on to produce several films, point at an expanding trans-European network which originated from the earlier opera films.  

The making of the other six English-language films in Italy, however, never went ahead because of the outbreak of World War Two. After Italy’s declaration of war on Britain in June 1940, Zampi, being a foreign national from a country with which Britain was at war, was considered an ‘enemy alien’. Alongside some 4,000 resident Italians, he was arrested and interned in a UK holding camp while one of his Two Cities films, the anti-Nazi thriller Freedom Radio (Asquith 1941), was in production at Sound City, Shepperton Studios. Having survived the sinking of the Arandora Star, a ship headed to deportation camps in Canada, after the war Zampi continued to produce ‘quintessentially English’ films in London with the Rank Organisation. His figure will interest us further because of his later involvement in the promotion and circulation of Italian cinema in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

The lesser known film collaborations overviewed here illustrate the importance of a comparative, transnational approach when researching the history of European studios. They suggest a prolific migration of ideas and labour within the European film industry landscape of the 1930s, displaying creative attempts at producing and circulating films across national territories and application of foreign language and intercultural skills to the industry. The case studies also allow us to reflect on the tensions that exist between the place-based nature of film production and issues of lingua/culture-centrism, hinting at the dynamic transcultural experience of making films across studios and nations at a time of insurgent political and ethnic nationalism.  

References

Anon. ‘Seven English Features to Be Produced in Italy’. The Film Daily, 31 December 1937, 12.

Bono, Francesco. 2004. Casta Diva & Co. Percorsi Nel Cinema Italiano Fra Le Due Guerre. Viterbo: Sette Città.

Ďurovičová, Nataša. 1992. ‘Translating America: The Hollywood Multilinguals 1929-1933’. In Sound Theory, Sound Practice, 138–53. Routledge.

Loacker, Armin. 2019. Unerwünschtes Kino. Deutschsprachige Emigrantenfilme 1934-1937. Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria.

O’Sullivan, Carol. 2019. ‘“A Splendid Innovation, These English Titles!” The Invention of Subtitling in the USA and the UK’. In The Translation of Films 1900-1950, 267–90. British Academy, Oxford University Press.

Ravotto, Joseph. ‘Foreign Investments Aid Italian Studios’. Motion Picture Herald, 5 February 1938, 25.

Ridenti, Lucio. ‘A Tirrenia Con Due Sergenti, Tredici Uomini e Un Cannone’. Cinema Illustrazione, 26 August 1936, 5–8.

Wahl, Chris. 2016. Multiple Language Versions Made in Babelsberg: Ufa’s International Strategy, 1929-1939. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

STUDIOTEC goes to SCMS

This year the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference went virtual, and the STUDIOTEC team delivered two panels. The conference provided a great opportunity to showcase some of our ongoing research to new audiences. 

Putting Studios into the Frame: Architectural, Environmental and Geospatial approaches

The first of our panels foregrounded factors which influenced how studios in Britain and Germany developed over time with reference to crucial determinants such as the weather; geography and location; the human cost of changing technological practices, and the impact of architectural conventions on studio planning. The panel demonstrated that by understanding studios as dynamic spaces defined by multi-stratified layers of industrial and creative activity, as well as by architectural, environmental and geographic experience, they can more fully be put into the frame of film history and interdisciplinary analysis.

Richard Farmer spoke on the relationship between meteorology and filmmaking in Britain, exploring the ways in which global developments in studio design have been adapted to take localised climatic factors into account. Using London’s famed winter fogs as a case study, the paper demonstrated that specific kinds of weather necessitated specific responses: from the initial closure of British studios in the winter months in response to fog entering into and disrupting the places of cinematic production, via filmmakers’ seasonal migration to places such as the French Riviera, to eventual solutions that allowed for year-round production in the United Kingdom. Such solutions included the development of air-filtration plant that allowed production to continue through the winter at urban studios such as Islington and Shepherd’s Bush, and the construction of new studios outside the London ‘fog zone’ at more rural places like Elstree, Beaconsfield and Denham. These developments placed the British production sector on a much surer footing. The paper also showed how filmmakers in Britain, having finally found ways to banish fog from their workplaces, then sought ingenious ways to artificially simulate it in order to create ‘authentic’ visions of London.  

Eleanor Halsall explored working conditions in the first sound film studio built in Germany in 1929. This cruciform construction, known as the Tonkreuz, embodied the latest technologies in terms of soundproofing and ventilation and was designed to minimise disruption and control human flow throughout the building. When interviewed for film magazines about what it was like to work in these conditions, film stars (and it was mostly their voices that were heard!) complained about extreme heat and long working hours. Reading these testimonies led me to think about working conditions at this historical turn towards sound and the experiences of those working behind the scenes: the camera operators enclosed in soundproof boxes; and the engineers perched high up on the lighting bridge where the heat was even greater. The extras who were now required to stand in absolute silence for extended periods of time, an unwelcome departure from the silent era when they had more freedom to chat and move whilst waiting for their turn. The higher cost of shooting sound films led to more intense working patterns in order to complete these expensive productions quickly and this led her to think about workers in Metropolis.

Sarah Street’s paper ‘The Film Studio as Narrative Architecture’ focused on Denham, Britain’s most extensive complex of stages when opened in 1936, in an analysis of architectural plans, maps, photographs and A Day at Denham (1939), a promotional film which documented how the studios functioned. Looking closely at such visual documentation, the paper promoted new ways of thinking about studios as ‘narrative architecture’ that are inspired by architectural theories of the built environment and notions of buildings as ‘lived’ spaces with contested meanings. How Denham’s ‘narrative’ evolved was demonstrated with reference to the ways in which the spaces were used, adapted, moved through and experienced. Although Denham’s Art Deco façade projected an image of modernist, streamlined industrial efficiency, a post-war report observed that Denham’s spaces did not necessarily reflect this aspiration. This reflected a tension between the desire for efficiency and recognition that workers’ conditions needed to be improved. While oral and written accounts shed light on these issues, the visual evidence of floorplans, measurements and photographs enables the record to be more vivid and precise. At the same time this evidence opens up a whole range of conceptual approaches from architectural theory and practice to the analysis of studios.

Denham’s long corridor with colour-coded directions on the wall

Fraser Sturt’s paper focused on the work that we have been doing to build a spatial and temporal dataset for studios in England, Italy, Germany and France between 1930 and 1960. These data allow us to consider changing patterns of activity across Europe and the factors that might have driven them; from changing technologies, economies, migrations and the impact of war. The scale of the challenge this represents in terms of data collection, and the complex inter relations between datasets was highlighted, with little in the way of digital geospatial data currently available for this subject. Whilst it may be challenging, the gains to be had from such work were also drawn out – in that they allow us to explore the data in a different way and pick out different patterns. The map below indicates a partial representation of differing film outputs between 1930 and 1960 from data processed to data. As we build this dataset we’ll be able to explore cross cutting themes and tease out causation and correlation in a new way.  

Trans-European Patterns in European Film Production during World War II

The second panel discussed the inter- and transnational exchanges between film industries in Europe during wartime conflict, particularly the operational activity and organisation of film studios in France, Germany, and Italy.

Tim Bergfelder’s paper was focused on the transnational strategies and developments for German studios between 1939 and 1945.  Exterritorialising film production, the Nazis moved studio activity from Germany to occupied territories such as Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia, or produced in studios of Allied countries such as Italy. While in Dutch and Czechoslovak studios the emphasis was in the main on producing ‘camouflaged’ German films, French studios under German control catered primarily for local tastes and audiences. Meanwhile in Germany itself, studios experienced shortages of material and labour, as German personnel were increasingly drafted into the immediate war effort as soldiers, while studio facilities, production company offices, and printing labs were damaged or destroyed by bombs. The loss of a constant workforce was in part compensated by the use of foreign workers, some voluntary and actively recruited, while others coerced. The conditions for forced labour, including prisoners of war and camp inmates, varied from studio to studio and according to individuals’ usefulness to the studio operation. In this respect, German cinema’s war-time transnationalism took on colonialist and imperialist features.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1002-500/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sue Harris’s paper focused on the Parisian studios during the war and Occupation period (1939-44), asking how the studios operated under unprecedented new constraints that were both political and practical. Noting that the much-researched films produced by the UFA affiliate La Continental amounted to only 14% of the national output of the period, Sue redirected our attention to the broader landscape of French film production, which saw a wartime production of 220 French features and many other kinds of films (newsreels, documentaries, information films, advertising films). Putting the work of the studio employee back at the centre of the history of French cinema during the Nazi Occupation, Sue explored how the working population was transformed through a variety of measures: a drastically depleted male workforce that entailed the removal of much of the studios’ core skills base (to imprisonment or enforced labour); strict requirements for work permits; raw material and electricity shortages; the increased employment of women in historically male roles (such as carpenters, electricians and stagehands); and the impact of bombing and air raids. Drawing on contemporary records, Sue showed that the Parisian studios remained active, resourceful and productive throughout this period, and thrived in the most reduced of circumstances. 

Morgan Lefeuvre highlighted the unknown film cooperation between France and Italy during the war. Although the two countries had begun close cooperation in the field of film production in the early 1930s, she analyzed how the War and then the establishment of the Vichy regime, far from interrupting this cooperation, made it possible to strengthen the Franco-Italian dialogue in a new political context. Relying on numerous examples and mostly unpublished Italian and French archives, she showed how cooperation developed between September 1939 and the end of 1943. From the massive presence of French professionals in Italian studios during the ‘Phoney War’, to the control of the Nice studios by Cinecittà, via the creation of a Franco-Italian production company or the circulation of actors and technicians between the Rome and Paris studios, this brief but intense Franco-Italian cinematographic cooperation contributed to forging or reinforcing links between film professionals in the two countries. And it is on this rich ground that post-war Franco-Italian co-productions have flourished since 1946.

Reception organised in Paris in September 1942, in honor of the two Italian stars Assia Noris and Bianca Della Corte, in the presence of French and Italian actresses, as well as the Consul General of Italy (Mr Orlandini) and the official representative in Paris of the Italian film industry (Mr Sampieri)

Carla Mereu Keating‘s presentation ‘Studios at War: Military Transmutations of Spaces of film production’ explored how World War II altered the geography of Italian film production and impacted film studios’ physical and material infrastructure. At the beginning of the conflict, film studios across the country expanded their capacity (number of soundstage) to accommodate the making of a larger number of films. This infrastructural growth was a direct response to the increasing demand for domestic films caused by the facist regime’s monopoly laws of 1938. This ambitions programme was not sustainable, especially from 1943 onwards, when the war was fought at home, rather than being waged abroad: loss of human capital, scarcity of primary material resources, aerial raids and electricity and water shortages did not allow the film industry to continue to operate as planned. During the later stages of the war, the Art Exhibition venue in Venice became the regime’s main film production site; Roman studios were looted by military raids, heavily damaged by Allied bombings (e.g. De Paolis studios) or served as POW and displaced-persons camps (e.g. Cinecittà). Under Nazi and Allied military occupation, some Italian studios were requisitioned and put to a use quite different from their original one: Pisorno studios in Tuscany and Farnesina’s in Rome, for example, were chosen because of their size and location to fulfil a variety of tasks in support of the war.

Yearly film report by minister of Popular Culture Alessandro Pavolini, ‘La consegna: consolidare e perfezionare le posizioni raggiunte’, Film, 13 June 1942, no. 24, p. 4

Both panels generated very interesting questions, comments and reflections. For panel one, a question about the colour-coded directions seen in Denham’s corridor suggested an awareness of contemporary thinking around using colour to aid industrial efficiency. Workers’ health issues also came up as a topic for discussion, particularly how synthetic fog created quite dangerous work environments. The reasons for particular locations – British studios near London, and French studios near Paris – highlighted the close proximity of actors who also worked in theatres, as well as the key resources and expertise necessary for film production. Finally, this panel was asked about the use of GPS-generated data gathering. The richness of data for Ufa, for example, is enabling new insights into issues such as migration, labour mobility and employment patterns that can then be compared across the four countries. GPS helps us to see how spaces changed over time and the growth of studios in relation to city planning and development. Questions for the second panel prompted reflection on how limitations and scarcities had an impact on films such as Roma città aperta (1945). The material presented on Continental Films during the Nazi occupation of France prompted discussion of its ‘independence’, as well as Franco-German collaboration in the 1930s. The position of Jewish involvement in the French industry was also discussed, the risks involved and the very few examples of people who were able to continue to work at the studios. The precarity of the position of black workers was also referenced, as well as the position of women in the studios. Responses to a question about the extent of co-operation with Japan showed that some took place in Germany in the 1930s but there was little of note in Italy except for a visit by Japanese dignitaries to Cinecittà. 

The STUDIOTEC team found the experience of delivering two panels at SCMS stimulating and a great way to take stock of our research so far. It was great seeing other panels too, several of which touched on our interests. We look forward to the next occasions when we can present as well as interacting with other scholars interested in studio studies.

Cricket in British Studios

By Richard Farmer

I have recently been doing some research into the sports and social clubs established at British film studios, seeking to understand how the various sporting events, leisure activities and outings they organised functioned as elements of workplace culture. I have also been exploring sporting competitions organised between different studios, and between studios and firms operating in different parts of the British film industry. 

During this research, I came across references to on-set cricket matches played at Shepperton during the production of Private’s Progress in the summer of 1955. These matches took place during the working day, so were different from most of the sporting events that I’ve been looking at which were scheduled for weekends or during workers’ leisure time. If anything, the Private’s Progress cricket matches are aligned with the kinds of activities discussed by Morgan in a previous STUDIOTEC blog, in that they provided a means of killing time during the tedious longueurs of film production. Using these games as a starting point, I decided to look into cricket in British film studios.

Boulting Brothers charity cricket team

Private’s Progress was directed by John Boulting, and produced by his twin brother Roy, both of whom, in the latter’s words, ‘feel passionately about cricket’ (Furlong 1959: 634), and were known to use slightly tortured cricket metaphors to hit out at criticism of British films (see, for example, Boulting 1959: 6). Although the sport features in several of their films, so sincere was the brothers’ love for cricket that when asked in 1959 if they had ever thought about producing a cinematic satire on the game, as they did about the army in Private’s Progress, academia in Lucky Jim (1957) and industrial relations in I’m All Right Jack (1959), Roy replied: ‘Good heavens, no.  One can’t be funny about cricket.  It’s a sacred subject’ (Furlong 1959: 634).    

There were times, however, when cricket injected a degree of humour into the making of Private’s Progress. When Alan Hackney, from whose novel the film was adapted, visited Shepperton, he found the Boultings seemingly more interested in the fourth Test then being played against South Africa in Leeds than they were in the production of their film. As England tried, and ultimately failed, to hold on for a draw on the final day, the brothers received regular updates about the state of play and regularly gave voice to their nervous preoccupation: John – ‘I can’t stand it’; Roy – ‘I can’t bear it’ (Hackney 1956: 597).   

Boris Karloff in cricket whites

The Boultings were not the only British film industry figures with an interest in cricket. C. Aubrey ‘Round the Corner’ Smith, formerly of Sussex and England, made an acting career in America, and was a founder member of the Hollywood Cricket Club, for whom David Niven, Clive Brook and Boris Karloff all turned out, the latter making the club’s first century. In 1929, Terence Rattigan played for Harrow in the annual match against Eton; 22 years later, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, he wrote The Final Test for the BBC, ‘an inevitable outgrowth of [his] early Harrovian division of time between theatre and cricket’ (Rusinko 1983: 3). This television play was remade for cinema at Pinewood in 1952, where parts of the Oval were built in replica after permission to film at the ground was refused. These sets were so detailed that the England cricketers who appeared in the film, including Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Alec Bedser and Jim Laker, were said to have felt very much at home:  

These people [said Hutton] had got the atmosphere so complete that I felt I was taking part in a real Test match when I walked out from the pavilion to open the innings with Cyril Washbrook.  I forgot everything else, except that I was going to face the bowling and to make the runs (Birmingham Gazette, 21 November 1952: 2).

The Final Test – Cast and Crew

Trevor Howard was so famously dedicated to the game that he made it clear to prospective employers that there were certain days when he would be unavailable for filming: ‘“Why?” they’d ask. “Test match, amigo,”’ he’d reply (Munn 1990: 50). Indeed, Howard’s contract with the Rank Organisation was said to contain a clause stating that he would not have to work on specific days, so that he could attend international cricket matches (Birmingham Gazette, 18 August 1950: 4). Even when Howard was in the studio during England tests, cricket remained his primary concern, as Edgar Craven found on a visit to Pinewood on 27 June 1950. Howard was supposed to be concentrating on his leading role in The Clouded Yellow (1950), but his heart was evidently at Lord’s, where the West Indies’ batsmen were piling on the runs in the second Test. At various points throughout the day, Howard was found ‘wandering sadly’ around the studio, obsessively muttering the score, his face more despairing, Craven noted, even than those anxiously contemplating the uncertain future of the British film industry (Craven 1950: 3).

Ian Carmichael was another enthusiastic cricketer, which might in part explain why the Boultings cast him in half a dozen of their films. He noted that it was always easy to tell when he was working on a Boulting brothers’ set:   

On test match days a blackboard was erected beside the set and it was the prop boys’ responsibility, with the aid of their transistor [radio], to keep the score permanently up to date (Carmichael 1980, p. 315).

Carmichael, who starred in Private’s Progress, was given regular opportunities to play whilst working with the Boultings. Writing for Punch, Hackney noted that there were daily cricket matches at Shepperton during the filming of Private’s Progress and claimed that these often took place during regular brief strikes by members of the studio’s technical crew. Hackney, in a line that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of the Boultings’ comedies, records John as saying that ‘It’ll put days on the shooting, but it enables us to play cricket in the afternoons’ (Hackney 1956: 597).  

Yet whereas delays to the production of Private’s Progress allowed cricket to be played, cricket also disrupted the film’s production. Richard Attenborough, who along with co-star Victor Maddern was said by a delighted Roy Boulting to be ‘very keen’ on cricket (Hackney 1956: 597), was knocked unconscious whilst fielding during a stage-versus-politicians charity match at East Grinstead in September 1955:  

He was near the boundary and ran forward to take a lofted ball hit by Lieut.-Colonel W. H. Bromley Davenport, Conservative MP for Knutsford. The ball hit him just above the left eye.  He collapsed with blood pouring from the injury (Birmingham Post, 12 September 1955: 1). 

Still from Pathe newsreel: Attenborough on stretcher

The match was filmed by the newsreel companies and footage from the event, including a prone Attenborough being carried from the field on a stretcher and Minister of Labour Walter Monckton being bowled by a Rex Harrison grubber, can be viewed here (Pathe) and here (Movietone). Attenborough’s wound required twelve stiches, and he was unable to immediately return to work.  This, a studio spokesperson informed the press, necessitated a change in the shooting schedule: 

Dickie was to have filmed several scenes [for Private’s Progress] next week, but we shall have to reshuffle the programme to do certain other scenes in which he does not appear until he is better.  We are told it will be at least a week (Yorkshire Post, 12 September 1955: 1)

Charity matches were not uncommon, even if injuries of the kind suffered by Attenborough were, and afforded actors and other film practitioners an opportunity to show off their skills for a good cause and/or to generate some useful publicity. In 1950, Howard took a side from Pinewood to play against Cranleigh Junior School in Surrey, in response to a challenge from one of the teachers, who wanted to know how well a team of ‘strange film people [could] do on the cricket field without rehearsals.’ Well enough, it turned out.  Howard’s team included producer Betty Box, who had just finished working with him on The Clouded Yellow, and actors Helen Cherry (who was married to Howard), Diana Dors, Jean Simmons, Glynis Johns, Dane Clark and Robert Beatty. These last two, being American and Canadian, respectively, had not played cricket before. Assisted by Simmons’ fourteen with the bat, the schoolboys were bested by three wickets, and some valuable column inches acquired (Rugby Advertiser, 8 August 1950: 3). In July 1953, Terence Rattigan captained a Final Text XI – including both actors and professional cricketers – in a match which raised in the region of £3,000 for the Red Cross, eventually losing by three runs (Minney 1976: 147-7).

Trevor Howard in cricket whites

The weather for that game was good. The same could not be said of match around which The Final Test revolves, which was meant to have been played on one of Pinewood’s stages, but which was moved onto the studio’s lawn when it was found that competitive cricket could not be convincingly recreated indoors (Middlesex Advertiser and County Gazette, 21 November 1952: 1). Shooting in late November proved challenging.  Poor light is the enemy of cricketer and cinematographer alike, and the low, pale winter sun had to be augmented with artificial light from the studio’s lamps in order to give the match an authentic summer glow. Further, the cast’s faces ‘had to be painted over with sun-tan’ before shooting could commence (Minney 1953: 52).  

I found no evidence that the Boultings used their studio lights to continue their on-lot matches when the light got bad; rather, when filming outdoors, ‘the moment the shooting was held up for lack of sun the entire unit would move over to play cricket’ (Carmichael 1980, p. 315). In his memoirs, Ian Carmichael remembered that such play was made possible by the brothers’ cricket-conscious forethought: 

the … prop boys, in addition to the props required for the day’s shooting, always had to carry in their van a complete set of cricket gear. This, on arrival at our destination, would be set up on some adjacent patch of grass (Carmichael 1980, p. 315).

Having appropriate kit to hand was no doubt useful when filming The Guinea Pig on location at Sherborne School in 1948, where players from the school challenged the crew to a game. Despite the best efforts of Bernard Miles, who ran out three of his teammates, the visitors reached their target with a few minutes to spare, with important contributions coming from photographer Reg Davis, sound recordist Jim Whiting and assistant director J. Hancock (Hassall 2018).  Evidently, success on the cricket pitch was as reliant on teamwork as filmmaking. 

References

Anon., ‘Film star hurt in cricket mishap’, Birmingham Post, 12 September 1955: 1

Birmingham Gazette, 18 August 1950: 4.

Birmingham Gazette, 21 November 1952: 2.

Birmingham Post, 12 September 1955: 1.

Roy Boulting, ‘Franklyn, you’re so wrong’, Picturegoer, 23 May 1959: 6.

Ian Carmichael, Would the real Ian Carmichael – : an autobiography (London: Futura, 1980).

Edgar Craven, ‘Pinewood weeps over willow’. Yorkshire Evening Post, 1 July 1950: 3

Monica Furlong, ‘The Tatler interviews Roy Boulting’, Tatler, 17 June 1959: 634

Alan Hackney ‘Book into film’, Punch, 16 May 1956: 597-99

Rachel Hassall, ‘The Guinea Pig’, website of the Old Shirburnian Society: https://oldshirburnian.org.uk/the-guinea-pig/ (2018).

R. J. Minney, ‘The Final Test’, Cine-Technician, March-April 1953: 30-1, 52.

R. J. Minney, The Films of Anthony Asquith (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1976).

Michael Munn, Trevor Howard: the man and his films (Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1990).

Middlesex Advertiser and County Gazette, 21 November 1952: 1.

Rugby Advertiser, 8 August 1950: 3.

Susan Rusinko, Terence Rattigan (Boston: Twayne, 1983).

Yorkshire Post, 12 September 1955: 1.

Black Narcissus and Pinewood

This post by Sarah Street starts a new strand, ‘Film in Focus’, in which we examine a number of film productions from the perspective of studio studies. When planning Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947), Michael Powell was clear that he wanted to create the palace located high in the Himalayas entirely in a film studio: ‘The atmosphere on this film is everything, and we must create and control it from the start. Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting – it must all be under our control’ (Powell 1986: 562-3). Throughout the Second World War Pinewood was requisitioned by the Government for flour storage, the minting of currency and as the base for the Army Film and Photographic Unit. In 1946, when Black Narcissus was filmed there, the studio had only recently been de-requisitioned, and was beginning the process of post-war recovery. The studios officially reopened in April 1946 for films produced by the ‘Independent Group’, including Powell and Pressburger’s company The Archers (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 April 1946: 6). Black Narcissus was a milestone in the application of Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and also a technical feat that has influenced many filmmakers.

Images from the 1947 film reveal practical aspects of studio ingenuity, in particular how the set designs of Alfred Junge were realized for the screen. Surviving documentation on the making of Black Narcissus reveals some of the techniques that were necessary to create an unsettling atmosphere which, as the character Mr Dean remarks in the film, is extremely ‘exaggerated’. The inspiration for the palace at the fictional place of Mopu came from Rumer Godden’s novel (1939) in which the location is described very precisely as being high up and ‘full in the wind, it had no shelter. Its roof came down close to the ground and it had no open verandahs; every space had a thick glass pane. To step into the house was to step into stillness, into warmth even when it was damp and unlit; but after a moment a coldness crept about your shins. The wind could not be kept out of the house; it came up through the boards of the floor and found passages between the roof and the ceiling cloths; at Mopu Palace you lived with the sound of the wind and a coldness always about your ears and ankles’ (p. 21). In the film, the wind is certainly made a feature of, how it invades the palace and seems to be an unrelentless presence that contributes to the environment that so unsettles the nuns as they try to establish a school and dispensary in the palace that was a former harem. Junge’s designs created the initial visualizations of the palace set and bell tower, seen here in sketch form and then as shot at Pinewood. The total budget for sets was £78,176, whereas for actors it was £50,465, indicating the high priority given to that area of expertise (Street 2005: 18).

Other iconic shots, such as the high angle shot of the dining table seen early on in the film as Sister Clodagh’s mission is being outlined to her by Mother Dorothea, are also possible to trace from Junge’s original sketch to filming and to the final appearance of the shot on screen. Many other sketches were produced by artist Ivor Beddoes. 

The dining table scene in the film

The shots in the film that feature the terrifying precipice were illusions created by the matte artist Percy C. Day. Many of the locations were scenes painted on glass. Jack Cardiff explained how they would ‘matte out the NG [no good] parts of the frame with black card very exactly and then rephotograph the painted glass with mountains and clouds as a second exposure of the film’ (Bowyer 2003: 73). These techniques made it possible to work with the challenging demands of lighting for Technicolor since glass shots and matte painting facilitated the manufacture of exteriors in the studio where light conditions could be more highly controlled than on location. Day wrote that such relatively simple forms of special effect were nevertheless very important: ‘For even though nothing of outstanding photographic originality is aimed at, the fundamental purpose of the shot is achieved in that what would have proved a tricky and dangerous shot was rendered one of simplicity’ (Kinematograph Weekly Studio Supplement, 2 Oct 1947: xvii). For Black Narcissus Day used a new method which meant tests did not have to be shot in the first instance, enabling the film to be developed and printed straight away. He explained: ‘When the required takes have been selected, a decision is made where the matte shall be placed, always bearing in mind that it must not encroach on any part of the image where there is action, and also considering whether there is any addition in the way of movement, such as clouds, which play an important part in outdoor scenes. The matte line should follow dark shapes, such as shadows. Having decided on these points, the image is painted on to glass to match the image of the film projected upon it, following the line where the two have to be photographed to complete the whole’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 29 Jan 1948: 27-8). The illustrations below show Junge’s drawing as the basis for Day’s matte technique, and the same scene in the final film. 

The shot as seen in the film

Junge’s drawings included the wall paintings that do much to ensure the continued presence of the palace’s past use as a harem, even when its purpose has been completely changed into a convent. These images of the designs and how they were filmed on set, erected for the camera’s viewpoint and then how they appeared in the final film, also show the cycle of invention that contemporary studio practices enabled.

The high winds necessitated the use of a machine with a large propellor, as seen here in these images of it being set up for a shot. For smaller gusts, a simple hand-held device was used.

Producer J. Arthur Rank and Rumer Godden both visited the set when the film was in production. The set was also visited by twenty-three Indian soldiers who attended the post-war victory celebrations in London. A report noted that Michael Powell and stars Deborah Kerr and David Farrar ‘chatted to the men to get a first-hand account of life in the Himalayas, and were told the set and costume designs were remarkable in their authenticity’ (Illustrated Leicester Chronicle, 27 July 1946: 3). 

Black Narcissus featured birds, as first seen when we are introduced to the character Angu Ayah (May Hallatt). On set there was a ‘bird trainer’, Captain Charles William Robert Knight, a well-known British falconer who appeared with his golden eagle ‘Mr Ramshaw’ in I Know Where I’m Going! (Powell and Pressburger, 1945). His expertise must have corrected a search reported in Kinematograph Weekly for ‘an old and raggy parrot’ to appear in Black Narcissus to which pet store proprietors resolutely replied that old parrots rarely looked ‘raggy’, only birds in season (3 June 1946: 32). 

Even though the recent TV mini-series production of Black Narcissus (DNA Films, directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, 2020) was partly shot on location in Nepal, Pinewood was also used to create some of the most iconic sets, such as the bell tower that features so prominently in the story’s climax when Sister Ruth falls to her death after struggling at the tower with Sister Clodagh. This version of Godden’s novel was filmed using digital cinematography. Jack Cardiff’s approach was however influential in its visualization, with many shots striking very similar compositions and affective resonances in a spirit of homage. The bell tower, for example, was constructed at Pinewood, just as it was in 1946, and the sky behind it was based on shots taken on location in Napal but enhanced by effects work by Union VFX, an independent visual effects facility. 

The bell tower set and background in the 2020 version

In this way the heightened sensibilities and emotions that so pervaded Powell and Pressburger’s film have been re-visited. Revealing how the effects were achieved, as well as the stages of their development highlights the collaborative nature of filmmaking practices, the chains of responsibility and creative engagement required to respond to a production’s challenges. It also reveals the continuities between methods and approaches, in spite of the different technologies and personnel involved. Then, as now, Pinewood was central to their expression of artifice, ingenuity and creativity.

References

Black Narcissus, DVD Criterion Collection 93, 2000.

Justin Bowyer, Conversations with Jack Cardiff, London, Batsford, 2001.

Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus, first published 1939, Pan Books edition, 1994.

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, London: Heinemann, 1986.

Sarah Street, Black Narcissus, London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Exit, pursued by a bear: Animals in film studios

You last read about Scruffy, this time Richard Farmer, Eleanor Halsall and Carla Mereu-Keating investigate the wider use of animals in British, German and Italian studios.

Britain likes to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, and the numerous stories in the trade and lay press would appear to give some credence to this cliché.  Indeed, British film fans could read about animals in other countries’ film industries, from how much it cost to rent a cow in Hollywood (£2 a day, since you ask) to the exotic inhabitants of the Ufa menagerie in Berlin (Weir 1936: 5; M. G. H. 1932: 110-11).   

Articles on domestic cinematic fauna tended to dominate, however, and whilst we see numerous stories about studio cats and the stars’ dogs, other discussions of the place of animals in British studios throw light on the spaces and processes of film production in the UK.  For example, we get a sense of the sheer range of employment types that came within the orbit of the studios.  Professional trainers successfully prepared various kinds of animals for their time before the cameras.  The Munt family started supplying horses to British film studios in the silent era and kept more than 150 horses ready for acting duties, with members of the family sleeping in the studio with their charges and also sometimes appearing either atop or alongside them in films such as The Wicked Lady (1945), shot at Islington (Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947:13).  Agents were often responsible for sourcing and getting animals to the studios, as Constance Sparks explained: ‘I know parrots that will whistle any tune or speak certain words; men with dogs that perform amazing tricks, and I have filed information that enables me to get talking ravens, cats of all colours, and even performing fleas!’ (Sparks 1933: 6).  Someone, presumably, was also responsible for cleaning up after the animals. 

Working with animals could be extremely dangerous, and a trainer was mauled by a leopard during the filming of Duel in the Jungle (1954) at Elstree (Walker 1954: 12) whereas cameraman Hone Glendinning had to be ‘housed for safety in a camera booth’ during the filming of Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938) at Shepperton because the pythons featured in the film ‘streaked across the studio floor’ and ‘darted at members of the company and technicians’ (Anon 1937b: 44).  Animals could act unpredictably when they found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and cows ran amok during the filming of a farmyard scene in the George Formby comedy Keep Fit (1937) at Ealing, smashing a pigsty, breaking furniture and tipping over a camera (Anon 1937b: 9).  The producers of The Thirty-Nine Steps had the opposite problem, as sixty-two long-haired sheep felt so at home on the artificial Scottish Highlands built by the Gaumont-British art department at Shepherd’s Bush that they immediately put their jaws to work, quickly accounting for ‘the tastefully arranged heather, bracken, bushes, ferns, and even “property” grass’ so that ‘by the time that the stars of the production, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat arrived they had hardly a set to stand in’ (Anon 1935b: 7).   

The desire to include animals in films demonstrated both the opportunities and drawbacks associated with new studio technologies.  The coming of sound, for instance, allowed engineers to add auditory realism to sequences featuring animals, and the sound of the gulls in Cape Forlorn (1931), for instance, was carried down a telephone wire from Eastbourne to the BIP studio at Elstree, where it was amplified and recorded (Vigilant 1931: 7).  Yet there was such a thing as too much realism: Dobbin, a horse engaged to appear in Me and Marlborough (1935), caused engineers at Shepherd’s Bush ‘some trouble’ as ‘the champing of a horse’s jaws is a most penetrating sound, and sounds terrifying when reproduced by the recording apparatus’ (Anon. 1935a: 3).  At Denham, the desire to make the River Colne an idyllic but suitably quiet background for filming led to the introduction of ducks ‘guaranteed not to spoil recording with their clamour.’  Unfortunately, the ducks ‘all perished miserably – pursued by the swans and held relentlessly underwater until drowned’ (Dixon 1936: 12), a brutal metaphor, perhaps, for the financial problems that would eventually force Alexander Korda to relinquish control of the studio. 

Illustrative of some of the more unusual hazards facing actors and performers in German film studios, Theo Lingen, in the role of an English journalist, was attacked by his ursine partner during the 1935 shooting of Der Kurier des Zaren (The Tsar’s Courier). Lingen himself was quickly rescued, but the tamer who intervened bore the brunt of the bear’s anger, suffering serious injuries. (Filmpartner, Mein Film, 1935: 18). 

The prolific German film star and director, Harry Piel, frequently worked with all manner of fauna including major predators. This was mostly, but not entirely, without incident. Piel’s advice (should you ever feel inclined to enter a cage full of lions) is to grasp a chair in one hand and a metal pole in the other. With luck, this circus trope may be useful in deflecting swipes from large, exceptionally powerful paws. Or perhaps not. 

Harry Piel’s Panik (1928) 

Piel warned further never, ever to turn your back on a lion and to always be bold: the scent of fear signals opportunity to a predator (Tiere als Filmpartner, Mein Film, 1935: 17). On another occasion Piel cautioned that, should you ever find yourself too close for comfort to a polar bear, the only hint of an impending attack might be a gentle sneeze… 

Yet Piel himself could be taken by surprise. In a widely reported incident during shooting at Babelsberg in 1927, he was standing on a staircase when a tiger was released from its cage. In one leap, the animal landed on the stairs, planting its paws on Piel’s shoulders and causing the structure to collapse, graphically illustrated by Le Petit Journal Illustré. Piel plunged more than three metres to the ground and was carried off in an ambulance, severely injured. Nothing was written about the health of the tiger. (“Harry Piel,” Arbeiterwille, 1927:3; Les dangers du cinéma, le petit Journal illustré, 1927: 2.) 

Germany’s Ufa achieved global recognition for its educational films: short and feature-length documentaries striving to bring the natural world to the cinemagoer. Some of these nature documentaries were made on location, but many were shot in the studio at Babelsberg. To supply the studios, as well as to host animal stars for feature films, Ufa kept its own zoo on site under the watchful eye of cameraman and assistant director, Wolfram Junghans. 

Mein Film described the enthusiasm of a large crowd gathered outside Ufa’s centre on Berlin’s Krausenstrasse (“Mungo,” Mein Film, 1932; 10). One of Ufa’s cultural films was playing on the screen as spectators ‘jostled and japed as they cheered on the deadly battle between a cobra and a mongoose.’ Mungo – one of Ufa’s stars – won the day; the anonymous cobra dying in the pursuit of realism. Animals will be animals, however, and on another occasion when Junghans was preparing a pair of tarantulas who were to be filmed eating a grasshopper, the latter, having failed to study the script, bit off the male tarantula’s left hind leg, instantly altering the narrative. (“Schakale,” Illustrierte Wochenpost, 1930). 

Among the Ufa-Zoo’s other exotic inhabitants were a wolf named Wolfi and his close friend Ali the monkey; Barzi and Gabo, a pair of unruly jackals; spiders, scorpions, alligators and, of course, snakes. Wolfi and Ali achieved fame beyond Germany, and much was written about their symbiotic friendship as well as Wolfi’s appetite for helping to round up animal actors when required. 

Wolfi and Ali

Filmed on location or within Cinecittà’s extensive backlot, the animal world had its fair, and unfair, minutes of fame on Italian screens too. 

Italian Neorealism enthusiasts may remember the dog Flike (also spelled Flaik) acting alongside Carlo Battisti, the university professor turned actor who played the title role in Vittorio De Sica’s drama Umberto D. (1952). The ‘profoundly moving’ relationship between the desperate elderly man and his faithful dog ‘fill us with a desire to help make things right for these people’, commented Roger Manvell, director of the British Film Academy (The Film and the Public 1955: 183-84).  

As is well known, Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti, at the time undersecretary of the Italian government at the performing arts office (Ministero dello Spettacolo), had not been equally enthusiastic about the film’s unflattering representation of Italian society (Sanguinetti 2014). And unsurprisingly so, if we consider how the human-animal relation is dramatized throughout the entire film, the little dog symbolising the only anchor in life for the elderly man made vulnerable by the long-term consequences of war and left behind by the promises of the economic miracle.

Images from Umberto D.  

Long before the rise of computer-generated imagery, production of historical films required the shooting of scenes with live animal gatherings. Large cavalry units, for example, were employed in the battle scenes of historical war epics produced during the fascist regime, such as Cavalleria (Alessandrini, 1936), Condottieri (Trenken, 1937) and Scipione l’Africano (Scipio the African, Gallone, 1937). The co-operation of Italian armed forces was often sought-after for the manpower, for example, thousands of infantry and cavalry soldiers were required to shoot Scipio’s final battle of Zama (Bianco e Nero, 1937: 9). All of these grand cavalry scenes were, however, shot on location while the Cinecittà studios were being built. 

Until the early 1960s, when other large studios were constructed outside of Rome (e.g., De Laurentiis’ Dinocittà), Cinecittà was the only film production facility capable of accommodating this type of outdoor setup because of its vast backlot space. Roman chariot racing in Hollywood’s sword and sandal colossal productions such as Quo Vadis(LeRoy, 1951) and Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) were shot there.  

Ben Hur’s chariot race, 1959

Horses and other wild animals such as lions, tigers, giraffes, camels and elephants required for filming historical, mythological and adventure films were usually outsourced from Italian zoos and travelling circuses. Some archival sources suggest that Angelo Lombardi’s zoo at Salsomaggiore was the main source of supply for wild animals kept in captivity. Yet providing the requirements of large productions often proved a hard task for resource managers who had to look outside of Italy.  

An illustrative case is the imperial propaganda film Scipio, which cost the fascist regime the staggering sum of about 12.6 million lire (Sciannameo, 2004: 36). The iconic elephants of the Carthaginian army had been particularly hard to find because of the large number requested by the script. Press sources indicate 50 elephants had been used (Bianco e Nero 1937: 9), 18 as front line ‘actors’ able to trumpet, lift the trunk upwards, run and march at their trainer’s signal; and around three dozen only ‘able to act as extras’ (Cinema Illustrazione 1937: 7). 

Elephants in SCIPIO

To our present understanding of animal welfare, however, one cannot ignore the exploitative use of elephants in Scipio. To appear in this ambitious spectacle of war, the elephants were transported by train from the circus Amar, based in central France, to the Tuscolana station in Rome, a long journey which made them ‘nervous’ at arrival (Cinema Illustrazione, 1937). With the exception of a poorly elephant, who had given birth to her little one on the train journey from France to Rome, all the other elephants were forced to walk over 80 km to get to their destination, the Pontine marshes, an area recently reclaimed from malaria and chosen for the filming of the final battle of Zama for internal propaganda purposes (Caprotti 2009). Because these elephants were circus animals, they were not used to walking long distances (an 18 hour walk according to today’s road conditions); at some point along the way, their delicate feet were wrapped in interwoven straw to avoid injury (Cinema Illustrazione, 1936). During shooting, the elephants were asked to march in line, straddled in towers and mounted by two actors impersonating the Carthaginians.  

Animals clearly made important contributions – if at times undervalued and exploitative – to the films made in studios and on location. As these examples have illustrated, they were key to the many spectacular, entertaining and empathetic scenarios in which they featured.  

References 

Anon., ‘They supply the horses’, Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947, p. 13.

Anon., ‘Me and Marlborough’, Eastbourne Chronicle, 19 Jan. 1935a: 3. 

Anon., ‘Government whips puzzled’, Belfast Telegraph, 15 Feb. 1935b: 7. 

Anon., ‘Cows run amok at ATP film studios’, Middlesex County Times, 19 June 1937a: 9. 

Anon., ‘Detectives aid King in Sexton Blake subject’, Kinematograph Weekly, 18 Nov. 1937b: 44. 

Anon., ‘Harry Piel verunglückt’, Arbeiterwille, 5 Dec. 1927: 3. 

Anon., ‘Gefährliche Filmpartner‘, Mein Film, 1935, 517: 18. 

Caf., ‘Gli Elefanti Di Scipione’. Cinema Illustrazione, no. 51, Dec. 1936: 7. 

Federico Caprotti, ‘Scipio Africanus: Film, Internal Colonization and Empire’. Cultural Geographies, 2009, no. 16: 381–401. 

Campbell Dixon, ‘Britain’s new film city’, Daily Telegraph, 28 April 1936: 12. 

René Gauthier, ‘Les dangers du cinéma’, Le petit journal illustré, 1927: 602. 

M. G. H., ‘Actions speak louder than words’, Picture Show Annual, 1932: 110-11. 

W.H. (1932), ‘Mungo‘ kämpft vor einem Stehparkett, Mein Film: 1932, 341: 10. 

Roger Manvell, The Film and the Public (1955, Penguin, Middlesex). 

Donatello Serri Meers, ‘Come Ho Trovato Gli Elefanti Di Scipione’. Cinema Illustrazione, no. 32, August 1937: 3. 

Peter Pau, ‘Schakale, Bären und Taranteln als Filmstars’, Illustrierte Wochenpost, 2 May 1930: 5.

Harry Piel, ‘Tiere als Filmpartner‘, Mein Film, 1935, 483: 17. 

Tatti Sanguineti, ‘Giulio Andreotti. Il cinema visto da vicino’ (2014).

Franco Sciannameo, ‘In Black and White: Pizzetti, Mussolini and “Scipio Africanus”’. The Musical Times, vol. 145, no. 1887, Summer 2004: 25–50.

Constance Sparks, ‘Finding stars for the talkies’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 Nov. 1933: 6. 

‘Ermietung von 2 Pferden‘, Ufa-Vorstandsprotokolle, 23 February 1944, BArch R 109-I/1716.

Vigilant, ‘Flotsam and jetsam’, Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer, 31 Jan. 1931: 7. 

Derek Walker, ‘Was their journey all that necessary?’, Picturegoer, 24 July 1954: 12. 

Alan Weir, ‘The animals of Hollywood’, Leeds Mercury, 4 July 1936: 5.